For 40 years Rupert Murdoch has been a hate figure for many on the left and some on the right. He has been seen as a relentless populariser and dumber-downer, which of course he often is. But his company has also owned The Times Literary Supplement for 30 years. The Times itself, though admittedly not the paper it once was, is hardly a comic, and Mr Murdoch not long ago paid an enormous sum of money to acquire the upmarket, not to say austere, Wall Street Journal.
I mention all this because Mr Murdoch is obviously a declining force. There is much talk of his British publications, or at any rate the more elevated ones, being sold, with or even without his consent. God alone knows who would buy them. Even if they are not got rid of, the media tycoon is 80, and will not be with us for ever. One way or another, the power he has had over our culture for the past few decades is coming to an end.
As he slides over the horizon, another figure hoves into view, a more complete populariser than Mr Murdoch, someone who has no desire ever to be thought respectable and panders far more single-mindedly to the lowest common denominator. Ludicrous though he may seem, sometimes almost to the point of self-parody, Richard Desmond is the coming media tycoon. Do not underrate him. The influence this erstwhile (and to some degree continuing) pornographer may exert over our culture may never equal Mr Murdoch's, but it is likely to be more malign.
Last week Mr Desmond's Channel Five relaunched Big Brother with a celebrity edition of the show which had a cast including the Speaker's deluded wife, Sally Bercow, and the former pop star Kerry Katona. Though derided by most critics, it attracted an estimated 5.1 million viewers, the network's largest ever audience for a non-sporting event. Whatever slight pretensions it had when broadcast by Channel 4 have been jettisoned, and according to its new presenter, Brian Dowling, it is simply "a prime-entertainment show".
Unlike Mr Murdoch, Mr Desmond is not an originator of ideas, with the possible exception of his pornographic empire. He tends to buy struggling businesses (all of his national newspapers, and Channel Five) and makes them profitable by slashing costs. Or he simply replicates a model, as he did by launching the celebrity magazine OK! in the mould of Hello!, and has done so again in producing a more downmarket version of Big Brother, which I have no doubt is a harbinger of much that will follow on Channel Five.
The most successful media tycoons of the past century – Northcliffe, Hearst, Murdoch – have been innovators, and of course I don't suggest that Mr Desmond is in their class. Cost-cutting and imitation will only get him so far – but that could be quite a long way. It is true that his Express titles are wilting, and I would not be surprised if he goes back to the Mail group to try to offload them at a lower price than he sought on a previous occasion.
On the other hand, Mr Murdoch's closure of the News of the World has ironically given a fillip to Mr Desmond's even more downmarket Daily Star Sunday, whose sales increased by 90 per cent last month. His ultimate prize would be The Sun, if it comes on the market. He could certainly afford it. As owner of a dumbed-down Channel Five and this country's best-selling red-top tabloid, he would be a force to be reckoned with, and Rupert Murdoch's true heir. I certainly know which of them I prefer.
Web postings can be pure sewage
The comedian Robert Webb has given up his weekly column on The Daily Telegraph because he was cast low by abusive online postings. He is of a leftish persuasion, and was upset by nasty comments made beneath his articles by right-wing readers who, he suggests, mostly live in Gibraltar.
Mr Webb is evidently a sensitive chap and, that being so, one wonders why he persisted in reading postings that were bound to make him unhappy. That said, I think he has point. Any columnist who reads online postings is likely to be overborne by the huge amount of them – they can number several hundred, and take a long time to digest – and will almost certainly encounter abusive and even libellous comments which some newspapers scarcely bother to moderate.
The main reason for all this bile, as I have suggested before, is that postings are mostly anonymous. Hiding behind unfathomable aliases, the people who make nasty remarks are safe in the knowledge they can never be identified, and there will be no comeback to them as individuals. The phenomenon has rightly been compared to road rage, where normally respectable and even quite gentle motorists may mouth obscenities and wave their fists at strangers as they speed away to safety.
In the hope of seeming open and responsive, most newspapers encourage their commentators to engage with readers online. In principle this is a good thing. I have sometimes thought again about what I have written after considering a well-argued posting.
But editors can hardly expect their columnists to wade through pure sewage. If existing arrangements continue unreformed, fewer and fewer journalists will read postings beneath their articles, which will, unfortunately, mean that sensible and thoughtful comments will go unread, and their authors will be wasting their time.