The other day an announcement appeared on the court and social page of The Daily Telegraph that warmed the cockles of my heart. A civil partnership was announced between Mr Guy Black and Mr Mark Bolland, which had been registered at Islington Town Hall on Saturday 11 February. Mr Murdoch MacLennan and Ms Rebekah Wade were witnesses. No further details were offered, and it may be that down in deepest Gloucestershire the eye of the Telegraph reader flickered over what may have seemed a rather innocuous item.
Not to me. The following day I scoured the newspapers. Here, after all, was a union of two media titans attended by a couple of media gods. Mr Black, a former chief executive of the Press Complaints Commission and until recently Michael Howard's spin doctor, is now director of corporate affairs at the Telegraph Group. His partner Mr Bolland was once Prince Charles's media guru, and rebranded Camilla Parker Bowles, as she then was. Mr MacLennan will be familiar to readers of this column as the chief executive of the Telegraph Group. Though little known on the national stage, because like Achilles she lurks in her tent, Ms Wade is, of course, editor of the mighty Sun.
Our newspapers are wont to devote pages to the goings-on of very insignificant and boring people. Surely, I conjectured, they would take an interest in a momentous event which, for me at least, bulged with unanswered questions. But as I turned the pages of tabloids and broadsheets alike, I could find only a few brief paragraphs in The Independent, The Guardian and the London Evening Standard. None of these newspapers properly confronted the historic significance of the ceremony, and the rest of the press simply ignored it. Perhaps the most surprising omission was on the part of the Daily Mail, which may not entirely approve of civil partnerships, and might have been expected to have exhibited a lively sense of fun.
As it happens, Mr Black and Mr Bolland are both friendly with Paul Dacre, the Mail's editor, and he may have spared them his newspaper's mockery out of consideration for their feelings. But was there more to it than that? The Mail may have chosen not to allude to the event because leading Telegraph figures were involved. I have noted before that for a year or more the Mail has scarcely ever mentioned the Telegraph titles, and vice versa. Certainly no rotten cabbages are thrown in either direction. This used not to be the case. Until Murdoch Maclennan resigned as managing director of the Mail group in 2004 to take up a similar position at the Telegraph Group, there were periodic exchanges of fire. The Evening Standard, for example, which is a sister paper to the Mail, seriously aggravated the Barclay brothers, who own the Telegraph titles. But you will have to look very hard to find a cross word about the Telegraph in the Standard today, even in its media pages. Even poaching by The Daily Telegraph of Mail journalists has occasioned no hostilities. Nor has there been any unseemly haggling over contracts. When the Telegraph Group recently recruited John Bryant from the Mail to become its editor-in-chief, he left his old paper practically smothered in kisses.
What explains this outbreak of mutual goodwill? As I write a column for the Mail, the reader might expect me to have a special insight, but I am afraid I don't. I have only theories. One is that when Mr MacLennan left he sought assurances that he and his new employers would be spared the Mail's lashing tongue. But why would the Mail offer him such comfort? It hardly makes sense. A more plausible explanation, which I have aired before, is that the Mail group, thwarted in 2004 when the Telegraph titles were on the block, still harbours ambitions to play a part in their future, and therefore does not wish to offend the people with whom it might do business. Naturally I am not for a moment suggesting that Mr MacLennan is party to any secret arrangement.
The Mail group, of course, has its own problems: it has been unable to sell its regional newspapers at a reasonable price, and the London Evening Standard is still haemorrhaging money. So it may not be in a position to offer a helping hand (which might conceivably take the form of a minority stake) to the Barclay brothers, even if it wanted to do so. And would the Barclays ever accept it? The deal would have to be done with the utmost delicacy. But the fact remains that, for all their brilliance as businessmen, they are new to the national newspaper business, and they undoubtedly face formidable challenges at the Telegraph Group. Last year's Daily Telegraph relaunch has certainly won them no new readers, and The Sunday Telegraph's more recent makeover may have mislaid a few, as I suggested last week. Do the Barclays have their own master plan for the future?
As we ponder that question, I will come down to earth with a particular conundrum: who should be the next deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph following the appointment of Matthew d'Ancona as editor of The Spectator? (See right.) Mr MacLennan is taking a close interest in this matter. One candidate is his lunching and shooting companion Simon Heffer, who quite recently joined The Daily Telegraph as a columnist from the Daily Mail. Mr Heffer has been tirelessly eyeing up editorships and deputy editorships for a long time, and was upset not to be offered The Spectator. I have the highest regard for Simon as a columnist, and I am sure that he has many years of opining left in him. It would be a pity, though, to cast him in a role where he might be unhappy, and possibly make others unhappier still. I am confident that, with all his experience as a newspaperman, Murdoch MacLennan will not make the mistake of cruelly miscasting his new friend.
Why I was very nearly wrong about d'Ancona
Two weeks ago I suggested that Matthew d'Ancona would be the next editor of The Spectator, though Andrew Neil, its chief executive, would prefer someone in his own image - more right-wing, less Establishment, go-getting, and preferably Scottish. Last week Mr d'Ancona was appointed.
I could therefore claim the credit of being right, and leave it at that. But I was very nearly wrong, for a few days earlier the job was all but offered to Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail's parliamentary sketchwriter and theatre critic. Mr Letts refused, mainly because he feared that Mr Neil would interfere too much. Mr Letts's name had been one on a shortlist of two agreed with Mr Neil by Aidan Barclay, who oversees The Spectator. The other was Mr d'Ancona's, so the job went to him.
The story does confirm my point - that Mr Neil did not want to appoint Mr d'Ancona. Whether he was really enthusiastic about Mr Letts (a larky, rather Establishment, liberal Tory) may be doubted, but he evidently preferred him to Mr d'Ancona. Now, as I predicted he would, he is singing Mr d'Ancona's praises. What a business. All that remains is for us to wish the new editor of The Spectator all the luck in the world. He'll need it.