Since newspapers make little or no money out of their websites, it is tempting to ignore the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations Electronic figures, which register soaring online usage. But however unprofitable websites may be, newspapers are pouring vast resources and energy into them, and some are achieving extraordinary results.
The general picture is that relatively late entrants – newspapers that did not initially take the internet very seriously – are making huge strides while the more established players are growing less strongly. This, I suppose, is what one would expect. Last month, Sun Online recorded figures 118 per cent up on February 2008, while independent.co.uk rose by 104 per cent over the same period. By contrast, guardian.co.uk, which was the online trailblazer, grew by a more modest 30 per cent year-on-year, though it still recorded two and a half times as many "unique users" as independent.co.uk.
Within this pattern of late entrants making up lost ground, the most striking performance is that of Sun Online, which includes content from the News of the World. In February, it recorded the highest number of unique users of any newspaper website, with a figure of 27,327,957. I suggest its success reflects something more than an improved website. The masses are going – have largely gone – online.
In the first phase of the internet's development, ownership of computers and access to broadband was more widespread among the "higher" social classes. This benefited websites such as guardian.co.uk. Now that it is possible to buy a laptop for only £200 or £300, and the real cost of broadband access is falling, there is no longer much advantage in having a middle-class audience.
During the first half of the 20th century, the sales of mass circulation papers climbed as the income of working-class readers increased. The cost of a newspaper was no longer beyond the pocket of the common man. Much more quickly, a similar process is now taking place online. The internet is being democratised. For the first time in our history, the newspaper that sells the greatest number of copies in the form of newsprint is also number one online.
Interestingly, only a minority of Sun Online's readership is in this country. Some 30 per cent of its audience comes from the United Kingdom, which is roughly the same proportion as for Mail Online or guardian.co.uk. In other words, there are lots of readers abroad hungry for stories about Jade Goody or Alfie Patten, the 13-year-old alleged father, which helped to boost Sun Online's readership last month.
The fascinating question is whether online readership patterns will eventually mirror those of newsprint. I obviously don't have the faintest idea. The two audiences are still nothing like in synch. For example, guardian.co.uk still has more unique users than Mail Online, though the Daily Mail sells six times as many copies as The Guardian. My guess is that there will continue to be an advantage for guardian.co.uk in being the prime mover, but this will continue to diminish as broadband access increasingly becomes more uniform among all social classes and age groups.
In a way, the whole thing is academic, and will remain so until or unless newspapers find some way of making serious money out of the internet. The online battle is in this sense not a real one, and writing about it is a bit like discussing weather conditions in the Aral Sea. Still, even I find what is going on pretty gripping.
An audience of just two for the vaudeville of Andrew Neil
The very mention of Andrew Neil's name tends to make people chuckle, but I am not being ironical when I say he was once the most impressive political interviewer on British television, and in some respects still is. He is much less nihilistic than Jeremy Paxman, and yet probably has a better feel for British politics. Though right wing in his own beliefs, he is always even-handed when asking questions.
And yet Mr Neil has never been as centre-stage as he has deserved to be. This is partly because he has had more lucrative fish to fry in journalism and business. And there is little doubt that the BBC has felt uncomfortable with his political views, however irrelevant they have been to his interviewing technique, and so has sidelined him to party conferences, and little-watched programmes on BBC2.
Here, he has performed with his customary authority, though perhaps diminishing enthusiasm – with one exception, This Week, which follows Question Time on BBC1 on Thursday evenings. This was once an informative programme, and to some extent still is, for those who like to get into the nooks and crannies of British politics. Alas, Mr Neil increasingly fancies himself as a funny man, and joshes and jokes with his permanent guests, Diane Abbott and Michael Portillo. They laugh dutifully at his clanking attempts at humour, as does Mr Neil himself, but they must be the only three people in the country who find him amusing.
Here, writ large, are the pitfalls for a straight man who yearns to do vaudeville. To a lesser extent, Sarah Montague makes the same mistake on the Today programme, laughing immoderately at what she alone supposes to be funny. Mr Neil only succeeds in undermining his authority. Watching him lark about on This Week is like seeing a once great opera singer humming a ditty at a village fair.
The Guardian is too keen to engage with men of violence
Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, last week cut links with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) until it does something about Daud Abdullah, its deputy director-general. Mr Abdullah recently signed a document in support of Hamas and military action in Gaza. He also seemingly advocated attacks on the Royal Navy if it tried to stop arms intended for Hamas being smuggled into Gaza.
Ms Blears's action was described as "perverse" in a first leader in The Guardian last Wednesday. It argued that contact had to be maintained with those of different opinions and, recalling the IRA, spoke of the "folly of refusing to engage with widespread views because they are deemed disagreeable". I particularly admire the word "deemed". Sometimes I think The Guardian has become an elderly, toothless Labrador that now slobbers over your face but was once the terror of the neighbourhood. Then one glimpses the old admiration for extremists who challenge the British state. Unless Mr Abdullah specifically rescinds his alleged endorsement of attacks on the Royal Navy – which he did not do in an article for last Thursday's guardian.co.uk – the Government is right to shun the MCB.