My first reaction when I looked at last Thursday's Daily Telegraph was that the paper had gone over the top. Under a banner headline and dramatic standfirst, and accompanied by large pictures, the paper's "splash" informed us that Learco Chindamo, who murdered the headmaster Philip Lawrence in 1995, had been arrested for an alleged violent mugging four months after he was released from prison and allowed to remain in Britain.
The more one read on, however, the more obvious it became that this was an important story. The Telegraph linked it to a Tory broken pledge to reform the Human Rights Act – under the provisions of which Chindamo, who lived in Italy as a child, was allowed to stay in Britain.
It dug up a quote from David Cameron, who said in 2007: "The fact that the murderer of Philip Lawrence cannot be deported flies in the face of common sense. It is a glaring example of what is going wrong in our country."
A year or two ago the Telegraph would not have given this story such prominence. Now – and not for the first time over the past 12 months – other papers followed its lead, with the Mail, Sun and Times changing inside pages for later editions, and the Mail giving the story the full treatment the next day. The Telegraph again showed how it has developed a taste for scoops, many of which follow a populist or even tabloid agenda.
The main explanation, of course, is that the paper is edited by an ex-Mail newshound, Tony Gallagher, who has surrounded himself with former Mail colleagues. Before he became editor a year ago, I used to think the Telegraph's pale imitation of the Mail an error, but Mr Gallagher has indisputably brought new conviction to the operation. The paper has had a string of scoops which were not handed to it by helpful government spin doctors.
It was the Telegraph which caused the downfall of the Lib Dem David Laws, after he had been a Cabinet minister for only three weeks, by revealing his questionable £40,000 expenses claim. The paper also encouraged the Government's "enterprise adviser", Lord Young, to dilate injudiciously a couple of weeks ago. In September it carried a leaked letter from Liam Fox to David Cameron warning about the scale of defence cuts. And, of course, it brilliantly extended its coverage of the MPs' expenses scandal over many months.
Some former Telegraph hands grumble that this more aggressive form of journalism shows scant respect for institutions – Parliament, the Tory party – which it once held dear. Some of the paper's older readers may be dismayed by this institutional irreverence, and many would doubtless be alarmed if it spread to the Church of England or, God forbid, the Royal Family.
All the same, it is impossible to deny that, since Mr Gallagher became editor, the paper's news pages have become sharper and more interesting, as well as better presented.
Work remains to be done on the features pages, however, and particularly the comment pages. (I exclude the excellent obituaries, which carry the spirit of the old Telegraph, and are in this instance all the better for that.) Though the paper has several excellent columnists such as Charles Moore and Peter Oborne (a recent signing from the Mail), its opinion pages seems slightly flat and inconsequential.
Reading the news pages, I sense the enormous amount of thought and energy that has gone into them, whereas the comment pages seem to lack a unifying intelligence, and the leaders do not cry out to be read.
Oddly enough, 30 years ago The Daily Telegraph had fine news pages but limited comment. Of course the opinion pages, for all their weaknesses, are very much better than they were then. Still, they are not as good as they could be, and their improvement marks the second, and in some respects more difficult, part of Tony Gallagher's challenge.
What power has the D-notice now?
In the pre-internet age, the secretary of the Government's D-notice committee was a personage whom editors took seriously. His role was to inform them that a story had implications for national security and request them not to publish. As patriotic chaps they were expected to comply.
It is difficult to see how the advice of the present secretary of the D-notice committee, Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance, will inhibit The Guardian, which is carrying the latest batch of Wikileaks documents.
If its editor, Alan Rusbridger, got out his black pen and began to cross things out, that would have no effect on what is published on the internet or by newspapers abroad, where no one gives a fig for British national security. Our enemies have no need of The Guardian.
The Spectator's twilight saga
In the past I have shared my concerns that The Spectator is not, in fact, first and foremost a magazine but a front for a manic party-giving organisation. Now my fears have deepened that it may also be some kind of bizarre religious bacchanalian sect trying to take over the world. Word has reached me of what is described as "an unforgettable evening of carols, exquisite singing and readings" at St Bride's in Fleet Street next week, organised by The Spectator.
Refreshments, including wine and canapés, are served in the Crypt of St Bride's (doesn't that sound rather sinister?) followed by music and readings. Most disquieting is the promise that among the readers will be chief executive Andrew Neil and the columnist Rod Liddle. Let's hope Mr Liddle will not have overindulged in the Crypt before he makes his way to the lectern.
The most disturbing part of it all is that tickets for this "religious service" cost an amazing £50 each, or £40 if you miss out on the goings-on in the crypt. My blood is chilled to the bone by the thought of where all this money might be going, and I call upon the sect's leaders, "Bishop" Neil and "Brother" Liddle, to make a full disclosure.