The 'Daily Telegraph': No other British institution has been so badly degraded

Once the representative of conservatism at its nicest, the 'Daily Telegraph' is in danger of becoming a clone of the 'Daily Mail' writes Sir Peregrine Worsthorne
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The Independent Online

Forgive me, I am being flip. The decline of the Telegraph group - where I happily worked for over half a century with many of the same colleagues throughout - is no laughing matter. Believe it or not, the Telegraph was once a paper which local bank managers used to carry - along with umbrella and bowler hat - as a symbol of reliability and respectability. Just as decent hotels would always have a copy of the bible in a drawer by the bedside table, so did decent middleclass families have an unopened copy of the Telegraph on the hall table. It was more than a newspaper: it was a talisman, believed to have magic properties which would ward off the evils spirits of modernity.

Subscribers - a million and a quarter - were loyal addicts for life - as were the hacks, among their other addictions.

It was too good to last, like so many other of Britain's favourite institutions - the BBC, the Civil Service, the police, the Church of England, the armed forces and even parliament itself. But none of these other national institutions has been so unnecessarily degraded as the Daily Telegraph. Certainly its finances needed reordering as did some of its more gothic journalistic customs, but the transformation by Conrad Black of what had once been a lovably teddy-bearish kind of conservative newspaper into a tigerish - albeit in the delectable shape of his wife, Barbara Amiel - American neo-Con propaganda sheet was most certainly not written in the stars. Has all been lost? Certainly bank managers are now an extinct species. But is the educated, non-ideological, agreeable conservative reader also a thing of the past? It would be comforting to suppose that the new proprietors - anticipating the David Cameron era - might have it in mind to test the waters all over again. But the omens are not good. For some of the columnists appointments made over Martin Newland's head seem to presage the adoption of a tone even more raspingly ideological - without even the mitigating advantage of Barbara Amiel's corporeal grace and beauty.

Nor does the background presence of Andrew Neil, Britain's archetypal yuppy, give much cause for encouragement. No good tidings - except in terms of circulation - come from that quarter. What we are in danger of getting is not the revival of a newspaper which represented English conservatism at its nicest - as the Daily Telegraph was when Bill Deedes served as its editor rather than its fig leaf - but rather a cloned new version of the Daily Mail which represents English conservatism at its very nastiest. A double dose of the Daily Mail poison, could the English body politic really survive that?

Or perhaps more to the point, could the Conservative Party survive? I rather doubt it. For while quite civilised people enjoy reading course-grained reactionary rants, they are much less inclined to vote for course-grained reactionary ranters. This is what is wrong with the Murdochian approach to politics. It attracts readers who like to have their blood curdled, but repels voters who want a quiet life. They put up with Mrs Thatcher's rough ways as a necessary evil during the Arthur Scargill years, but got rid of her once these rough ways had knocked him out of the ring. And so it will always be which is why turning the Daily Telegraph into the Daily Mail, while it may help the Barclay brothers to recoup the fortune they spent to acquire the Telegraph titles, will in no way help the Tory party.

No, I am not starry-eyed or idealistic. Of course it is the Conservative party's job to pour scorn on human rights, on ethical humanitarianism, on political priggishness, but precisely because it has that duty - a duty which carries with it a danger of sounding mean-minded and ungenerous - it must lean over backwards to have leaders and journalists who do not sound or look mean and ungenerous. The nastier the policies, the nicer - in the sense of better mannered, better bred, sweeter tongued, in a word, more gentlemanly, must be the politicians and journalists who espouse them. For while the respectable public will nod in agreement at ruthless, bloody-minded real-politic doctrines when intoned by some venerable statesman like the great Lord Salisbury, those same doctrines from the mouth or pen of a Richard Littlejohn - or even a Bruce Anderson or a Simon Heffer - will get a very different reception.

These considerations do not apply to anything like the same extent to liberal, do-goody newspapers which can get away with hitting below the belt, because their good intentions are taken for granted. That apostle of progressive thought, Polly Toynbee, gets away with murder in this respect. So high-minded are her ends, that any cheap rhetorical tricks or rantings she adopts to achieve them are easily overlooked. Not so with right-wing columnists who are always in danger of sounding fascist in a way that left-wing columnists are never in danger of sounding communist.

Earlier in this piece I referred to myself as a possible deserter from the Telegraph's ship. Until recently that would have been out of the question. Where else would I feel more at home? Certainly not with the Times. There it really would be a case of out of the frying pan into the fire. As for The Independent, Robert Fisk is not for me. (Max Hastings, when he was the Telegraph editor, wanted to make Fisk his Paris correspondent and Fisk has me to thank from saving him from that impossibly unsuitable posting). So there was nowhere else to go. That, however, is true no more. A new possible resting place has quite suddenly emerged: The Berliner Guardian. Whereas Polly Toynbee fitted the old Guardian like a glove, in the new, to my delight, she stands out like a sore thumb.

It is all very sad. We old-guard Telegraph octogenarians thought that Conrad Black, with his neo-Con ideas, was about as bad as bad can get. Not necessarily so. For the Barclay brothers, with no ideas, could prove even worse, as vacuums - demanding to be filled - often do.