On Wednesday, Rebekah Wade, editor of The Sun, will give evidence to the House of Lords communications committee as part of its enquiry into media ownership. According to a press release from that august body, Ms Wade will be asked about the declining sales of "red tops", including her own. Perhaps it will also take an interest in the declining standards of Page Three girls.
What will Rebekah – who normally shuns the limelight – say? It so happens that in December (admittedly, a weak month for newspaper sales) the Sun's circulation dipped below three million copies a day for the first time since 1974, a symbolically important development. This, despite the fact that the paper has been selling at 20p – a discount of 15p – in London and Scotland. The December figure was 2,985,672.
Ms Wade will doubtless point to an almost universal decline in newspaper sales, and cite the rise of the internet. I hope that their lordships burrow into the figures a bit. All national titles may be losing circulation, but they are doing so at different rates. Over the past 11 years, The Sun has mislaid 25 per cent of its sales. Only The Express and The Mirror have exceeded this rate of decline, with the latter falling to below 1.5 million copies a day in December for the first time.
This is more than about the rise of the internet. The Sun last sold over four million copies a day in March 1997. By 2000 – before the internet had properly kicked in – it was averaging 3.5 million copies. Since then, with a few upward blips, it has been losing sales constantly. In January, a more favourable month for newspapers than December, the paper will climb above the three million mark, but we can be certain that it will slip below it again, and fairly confident that, before long, the paper will be permanently under this mark.
All this should cause Rupert Murdoch, The Sun's proprietor, much anxiety. The paper has been an enormous cash cow for him for more than 30 years. Even now, it remains the most profitable title in Britain, with annual profits exceeding £100m. As his empire has grown bigger, so The Sun's profits have loomed less large. But what if it lost a further quarter of its sales – or more – over the next 10 years? That would be serious.
Mr Murdoch could always sack Rebekah, but one wonders what good that would do, unless he has a red-top genius waiting in the wings. It is widely recognised that The Sun has a demographic problem, inasmuch as its working-class base has been steadily contracting as the middle-class expands. The Sun needs to edge into Daily Mail territory – indeed, it has already begun to do so – though it runs the risk of straddling too broad a swathe of the market, and pleasing no one very much.
Of course, I haven't really got the faintest idea of what should be done. But who has? The Sun is a paper of the Seventies, and, three decades later, it is finding it more difficult than most to adapt to a changed world. All I know is that it is simple-minded merely to blame its decline on the internet, and I very much hope that Rebekah does not make that error on Wednesday.
Kenya the peaceful... Really?
During the past couple of weeks the BBC has swamped Kenya with correspondents, and offered excited reports even when not very much was happening. We have been told that Kenya has been a rare "beacon of democracy" in Africa that has unaccountably fallen from grace. Several newspapers have reported the post-election violence in a similar spirit.
Is Kenya really a "beacon of democracy?" From 1969 – six years after independence – until 1992 it was a one-party state. Its first president, Jomo Kenyatta, engaged in what one critic has called "the senseless accumulation of property", and his successor, Daniel Arap Moi, who finally stepped down in 2002, looted millions, muzzled the media and the trade unions, curtailed the autonomy of judges, and imprisoned dissidents, some of whom were tortured.
It is true that in 1992 Moi was forced to call elections, though in the opinion of many he fixed these in his favour. But the election only took place after a serious outbreak of violence, comparable to the present one, in which some 800 people were killed and thousands made homeless. Perhaps the BBC mentioned this comparatively recent upheaval, but if so I did not hear it. The impression was given of a perennially peaceful democratic state surprisingly coming off the rails.
Of course, Kenya is a wonderful country and, for Western tourists, a very pleasant place to visit. In recent years newspapers have been quite outspoken, and the economy has been doing pretty well. All the same, the number of Kenyans living below the poverty line has risen from 48 per cent of the population in 1990 to 55 per cent today.
Things could still get much worse – let's pray not – but it's wrong to depict Kenya as a former democratic paradise experiencing unprecedented problems. It may make for a better story, but it is not the truth.
You win some, you lose some...
Last week I wrote about David Montgomery's Mecom group, which has been expanding into continental Europe at a terrific rate, in quite favourable terms. Two days later, Mecom's shares crashed by a third after its brokers downgraded their profit forecast.
I had a bit more luck when it came to Boris Johnson, though: I suggested that his terror of Ken Livingstone's thought police had led to his column becoming a touch bland, and it was perhaps time for him to rest his pen. Last Thursday's column was, he told us, his last.
But not, perhaps, for ever. If he should lose to Ken in May, The Daily Telegraph will surely have him back. But what if he should win? Then he will have exchanged his £250,000-a-year column fee, plus his pay and perks as an MP, for the London Mayor's annual salary of £137,579.
No one can deny that Boris is risking a great deal.Reuse content