Bring back the dull days

The new proprietor of The Daily Telegraph must appoint an editor who can restore this bastion of the conservative press to its glory days of respectability, says Peregrine Worsthorne

So now The Telegraph is about to enter a new era. At least, the future does not, for sure, mean German or American ownership, which is something to be thankful for. But that such a fate was even on the cards should now, one hopes, be enough to guarantee that foreign ownership is never again even a legal possibility.

Also now ruled out for sure is any return to the bidding by the pornographer Richard Desmond, whose success, if it had materialised, would have tested to breaking point even Lord Deedes's well-tried capacity to transfer his loyalty effortlessly from one proprietor to another. But apart from dangers averted, what else does new ownership of The Telegraph portend? It is difficult to say.

What I would love to see is a return of the paper to its pristine state, when every bank manager and country solicitor in the kingdom carried it under his arm as a badge of respectability and reliability. The great merit and the unique selling point of the old Telegraph in its glory days was that it dared to be dull. That was its secret weapon.

It appealed to that great swathe of middle England that does not want to keep up with intellectual fashion, does not want to be shocked by the latest political scandal or stunned by the latest sexual outrage, and prefers to be encouraged to believe that all is reasonably well with the world and likely to remain so. It was in that sense, when owned by the admirable Berry family, that The Telegraph was conservative: conservative because it never hankered after novelty; never fell for the latest intellectual fad; never gave young firebrand journalists, anxious to make mischief and cause controversy - like PW - their heads; never sought to sensationalise life and letters. Readers felt safe with The Daily Telegraph. It might not have made them think, but neither did it make them feel that they were living on the edge of a precipice that might collapse at any moment. What they loved about it was that it never ranted. Reaction without rancour, that was the secret.

To some extent, of course, Conrad Black had already laid waste to that kind of capital, not only by proving himself to be a proprietor with scant respect for the financial niceties - the very opposite, in short, of a guarantor of respectability and reliability - but also by imposing upon the editorial line all the inflexibility of an ideology - something the Berry family avoided like the plague. Theirs was a conservatism with a small c, quite unlike Lord Black's hard-nosed adherence to American neo-conservatism. Indeed, towards the end of Lord Black's stewardship, The Daily Telegraph, at least in its foreign news coverage, became something little short of an organ for American neo-conservative propaganda. Nothing could be more certain to switch off the traditional Telegraph readership.

So the new owners could, if they chose to grab it, have an opportunity to bring the paper back on course. The first thing they would need to do is to clear out the neo-conservative columnists. Fortunately the worst of the lot, Barbara Amiel, the wife of Lord Black, has already been eliminated. But there are plenty of others, like Janet Daley and Mark Steyn, still left sending out signals quite alien to the English ear, not so much because of the views expressed but because of the strident tone adopted to express those views - a tone that may go down a storm in the Daily Mail but sounds desperately out of tune in The Daily Telegraph.

All will depend, therefore, on the quality of the Daily Telegraph editor chosen by the new proprietor. The present editor is a nonpolitical animal, put in by Lord Black, who was determined to have a free hand in laying down his own inflexibly pro-Bush and anti-Europe political line. I am not at all sure that, in the present circumstances, the best solution might not be for the new proprietor to invite Max Hastings to return to the helm. Hastings, of course, is the previous editor, who was eased out by Lord Black for not being anti-European or pro-American enough. Very likely he would not want to return. But the act of inviting such a prestigious and internationally known name would, in my view, be the best way for the new proprietor to send out this essentially reassuring signal: the return to The Daily Telegraph, at long last, of common sense.

No, this is not an exaggeration. A faint aura of peculiarity is the distinguishing mark, not only of today's Conservative politicians - David Willetts, for example - but also of today's Conservative journalists. This has always been true, of course, of William Rees-Mogg. But now it applies to a whole string of them. Almost to a man and, to a lesser extent, to a woman, there is something faintly absurd about even the best of them. Take Charles Moore, for example. Increasingly, it is becoming difficult to take him seriously. Like his close friend and Old Etonian Shadow Cabinet contemporary, Oliver Letwin, Charles does not seem to belong quite to the real world - an impression confirmed, rather than dissipated, by his new habit of emulating Enoch Powell by regularly and almost addictively riding to hounds and stalking deer.

One used to feel the same about Guardian women - Polly Toynbee, for example. But compared with Melanie Phillips, Polly now strikes one as having at least one foot planted firmly on terra firma. I find this disturbing, since the redeeming feature of erstwhile Conservative journalists and politicians - who weren't always very bright - was that at least they used to look and sound like human beings, rather than like strange creatures from another planet or - much the same thing - from Hampstead, where, in the 1930s, according to George Orwell, left-wing intellectuals dwelt. Now, however, it is the Tory opinion-formers who seem to me to have straw in their hair and a wild gleam in the eye.

The angry ones like Simon Heffer and Peter Hitchens are even more worrying, since they seem to me to be driven by hate and fury in exactly the same kind of way as left-wing ranters used to be. What a rum, ill-favoured bunch they mostly are. For them, there is no need for the pen of a great caricaturist like Daumier to make them look horrid. Any TV camera is more than up to the job.

The trouble, I fear, is that Telegraph journalism has been taken over by intellectuals - something that Lord Hartwell, the owner of The Telegraph through the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, firmly set his face against - and right-wing intellectuals, it needs to be recognised, are no less unattractive than left-wing ones. That is why Boris Johnson - the only genuinely popular one - goes to such extreme lengths, even to the point of posing as a buffoon, to avoid being taken for one.

Which takes me back to Hastings, who has no need to pose as a non-intellectual because nobody could ever mistake him for one. His passion for wearing tweeds and shooting game somehow seems to fit him like a glove, rather than giving the impression of someone decked out in cap and bells. On Radio 4's Any Questions, too, he has that invaluable gift of talking intelligently without sounding like a clever Dick. "Max is back." Believe me, that would be the headline most likely to convince Daily Telegraph readers that their beloved newspaper had been restored to safekeeping.

The writer is a former editor of 'The Sunday Telegraph' and a former leader writer for 'The Daily Telegraph'

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