Sales hit by the apathy factor

Papers did their best to get away from election coverage, and one may end up in court for its pains. By David Lister
Click to follow

It was once a maxim that newspapers increased their sales during election campaigns. No longer. The circulation figures for May dovetail fairly neatly with the election campaign. And for all the special sections, guest columnists and expensive opinion polls, sales were down on the April figures at The Times, Telegraph, Express, Mail, Mirror and Sun, and only slightly up at the other dailies. In the Sunday market, there were falls for The Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, Mail on Sunday and Sunday Express, all papers that would once have banked on an election to boost readership.

One circulation director told the Press Gazette that in the whole election campaign, the only thing that sent sales up across the board the next day was John Prescott's punch.

The apathy of voters did not, of course, go unnoticed by editors in the red-top and middle markets, who, from the outset of the campaign, made their front pages election-free zones on numerous occasions. Piers Morgan of The Mirror found that every time he put the election on the front page, sales went down. The Sun's editor, David Yelland, also claimed: "People are just not interested."

The reluctance to be too political stretched to polling day itself, when the Daily Mail splashed on Michael Barrymore's troubles, and the Daily Star splashed on a snatched topless photograph of the actress Amanda Holden. That determination to avoid politics could cost it dearly, of which more later.

If it's any comfort to the press, TV fared little better. Terrestrial, satellite and digital channels all attracted lower viewing-figures for their news bulletins during the campaign than in normal times. Roger Mosey, head of BBC television news, sent a memo to his staff, blaming some of the fall on the good weather. He was more convincing when he said that, despite the figures, it would be "unthinkable" for the BBC not to give the best part of its news coverage to the campaign.

It is equally unthinkable for newspapers not to devote substantial coverage each day to an election campaign; but with the tabloids keeping the campaign off the cover, and the broadsheets keeping their four-page election specials a respectable distance from the front, this campaign has marked not a dereliction of democratic duty, but an acknowledgement that the election campaign was rarely worth holding the front page for.

The May figures give little comfort for Express Newspapers, with a 2.81 per cent drop for the Daily Express and a massive 10.77 per cent month-on-month drop for the Sunday Express, giving a further indication as to why Richard Desmond was losing patience with the former Sunday Express editor Michael Pilgrim, even before the latter's notorious memo criticising Desmond's interference.

And Desmond can take even less comfort from the complaint by the actress Amanda Holden that semi-naked pictures of her in the Daily Star were taken with a telephoto lens. Ms Holden is pursuing this one in the courts, which are likely to take a rather harder line than the Press Complaints Commission. She has already won an injunction and will now be seeking damages. The photos were taken in a garden during Ms Holden's holiday in Italy. While Lord Wakeham, chairman of the PCC, maintained that a beach was a public place in the case of the photographs of Anna Ford, no one can argue that a garden is anything but private.

Jason Fraser, the pictures supremo at the Express group, has told me in the past that he is always available to chat about his philosophy on photographs. Yet he refused to make any comment about this matter. But then, there's not a lot that anyone at Express Newspapers can say in mitigation. The issue is quite simple. Running snatched pictures of semi-clothed celebrities ­ or non-celebrities, come to that ­ has no place in journalism today, even at Richard Desmond's Express Newspapers.