We are told so often that papers in newsprint form are dying a slow and painful death that it may seem foolish to question the received wisdom. But sales figures for July released by the Audit Bureau for Circulations suggest that some people are stubbornly refusing to be weaned off their quaint old habit of reading newspapers, while others are prepared to give it a try.
When Rupert Murdoch pulled the plug on the News of the World last month, some 2.7 million people were buying the Sunday red-top (about three times as many were reading it). Some pundits thought that most would disappear into thin air, but they haven't. Five Sunday tabloids have added nearly two million in sales. This may seem all the more surprising given that some of them were in a pretty parlous state.
It is perfectly true that these titles might not be your perfect bedtime reading. In percentage terms, Richard Desmond's rather sleazy Daily Star Sunday has made the biggest gains, soaring over 90 per cent year-on-year to 703,631. But the more serious Sunday Mirror has increased 54.66 per cent over the year to 1,786,454, while its stablemate, The People, which was apparently trembling on the verge of closure, has risen by nearly 50 per cent to 806,544. The mid-market Mail on Sunday and Sunday Express have also made substantial, if less dramatic, gains.
One shouldn't assume all new buyers will stick, but for the moment it seems that the great majority of formerNews of the World readers can't do without a newspaper. Hard-pressed publishers will be rubbing their hands in a state of bewilderment at this unexpected boon, not least Trinity Mirror, owner of the Sunday Mirror and The People, which last week reported annual profits down 65 per cent. At the other end of the market there is a more confusing picture, with the Sunday Times dipping below a million copies for the first time since 1962 while the plucky and redoubtable Independent on Sunday reported a headline circulation of 167,247, an increase of nearly eight per cent over 12 months.
In the daily market, all titles admittedly continued to slip in varying degrees with one exception which I shall not forbear to mention. This newspaper's new spin-off i posted its best ever monthly figure of 183,677. It and The Independent together outsell The Guardian even if one discounts The Independent's so-called bulk copies sold at a lesser rate. The success of i, in common with the Sunday tabloid resurgence, suggests to me there are still many readers who want newspapers in newsprint form, and that the internet is not necessarily the answer to everything.
Did The Guardian hack phones?
The BBC and The Guardian led the pack in castigating the phone hacking that took place at the News of the World. Both have been less candid in disclosing their own possibly similar practices.
John Higginson, political editor of Metro, recently unearthed an article written by David Leigh, an executive editor of The Guardian, in December 2006. Mr Leigh admitted to intercepting voicemails, and to having felt a "voyeuristic thrill" on one occasion. His defence was that he was trying to expose "bribery and corruption" and not "witless tittle-tattle about the Royal Family". I should also mention a case I wrote about here on 25 July 2009 involving The Guardian's use of a private investigator in 1999 to obtain information about a multinational company.
The BBC has admitted that it does "use private investigators occasionally and exceptionally to help with programmes" but it has not yet made a comprehensive rebuttal to the charge that it employed Jonathan Rees, a convicted criminal and private investigator. Mr Rees and his solicitor claim he worked for Panorama on two occasions between 1990 and 1993. There are allegations that other BBC programmes have made regular use of private detectives.
Obviously neither the BBC nor The Guardian used phone hacking on a scale remotely approaching the News of the World. But if they used it at all, however they may justify it, shouldn't they come clean now, rather than wait for Lord Justice Leveson's official inquiry?
Time to ditch celebrity tweets
David Cameron is reportedly considering whether social media such as Twitter should be shut down during riots. I should like to propose that newspapers stop quoting the usually shallow tweets of well-known people. Last week yielded a rich crop of idiocies reverentially published by newspapers, including this one.
Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker, tweeted: "While I condemn riots, I do agree that there are underlying causes." The woman is a genius! Footballer Joey Barton brilliantly opined that "violence always comes from a place of misunderstanding and low zero self-worth" while a visionary Stephen Fry pronounced that "greed and looting most hurts the small shops and businesses who can least afford it".
Wayne Rooney was also vocal on the riots, having earlier in the week self-interestedly tweeted that Manchester United's victory over Manchester City was a "footballing lesson".
Why do newspapers reproduce this stuff? Partly because they think they have their finger on the zeitgeist, and partly because they like to publish what celebrities are thinking, even if it is utterly mundane and self-serving. We are in danger of becoming mere handmaidens to the rich and famous.