The Media Column: Don't believe in the power of the press - even if Tony Blair still does

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The exercise of power without responsibility may, as Stanley Baldwin once advised newspaper proprietors, have been the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages, but nobody could accuse today's press of behaving like strumpets. Not that frequent gross irresponsibility within the fourth estate is a thing of the past. It's just the power that has vanished.

Among the thousands of words rightly devoted to Alastair Cooke upon his death, I read that a few years ago he observed to the editor of The Guardian: "No paper matters any more... I don't think we need the print medium at all. I no longer talk about the press."

This is not wholly true, of course. There is still a minority, composed at one end of voluble newspaper junkies among the chattering classes and, at the other, of red- top-tabloid devotees nurtured on big tits and tittle-tattle, who discuss what's in the papers, usually to complain that you cannot believe everything - or anything - you read. But, contrary to Anthony Sampson's claim of increased influence in his new Anatomy of Britain, I contend that real power, power that can topple governments, swing public opinion and mobilise an entire army of readers to make their voices heard, has long gone.

Yet the myth persists. Downing Street remains obsessed with the press. The Prime Minister, having cosied up to Murdoch to gain the blessed Rupert's endorsement in the 1997 general election, has retained a sometimes demeaning chumminess with his News International. Richard Desmond barely had time to shuffle copies of Asian Babes under his desk blotter at Express Newspapers before being whisked to No 10 for tea and a sympathetic ear. Favoured editors are fêted at Chequers.

Mr Blair, his ministers and a nervous Opposition believe in the power of the press, yet there is little evidence to support the theory that even the largest-selling titles much influence the way readers vote. It wasn't The Sun what won it with its sustained anti-Neil Kinnock campaign in 1992, any more than the majority of the press's anti-Labour stance in 1945 mattered to the returning servicemen who had already decided to dump Winston Churchill by then.

Rupert Murdoch knows the score. Those politicians who are paranoid about national newspaper editorials, he once told me, "are probably wasting a lot of emotional energy". This doesn't stop Murdoch, or others, vigorously campaigning through his papers against adoption of the euro and what he sees as the negative impact of the EU, but he is under no illusions. "We can't change the world," he admits, "but, hell, we can all try."

Politically, the press can certainly reinforce prejudices that are parading around the country demanding to be stroked under the chin and told they are right. The anti-asylum-seekers propaganda pumped out by the Associated Newspapers titles and the Express group doubtless fill a need felt by pink-faced country gentlemen and shaven-headed youths with bulldogs on their T-shirts alike, but the power to destabilise the administration remains with the people. How many divisions does the Pope have, asked Stalin? How many votes do the papers really control? None at all.

Incongruously, many senior figures in a diminishing newspaper industry appear still to believe that the world - this corner of it, at least - is hanging on every word spilling from the opinion pages. Richard Desmond presumably thought that contributing to the debate on asylum seekers with what amounts to barely-controlled hysteria wins friends, in terms of readers, and influences people. Wrong. When he gained control of the group, he forecast that the Daily Express would overtake the Mail within seven years - less time that it took his OK! to catch and pass Hello!. The average daily sale of the paper for the month he took over, November 2000, was 1,033,858. In February of this year, with a similar number of bulks distributed here, there and who-knows-where, was 961,836. With the halfway stage of his self-allotted term almost upon him, the gap between the Express and the Mail has actually widened.

This will not influence those deluded by self-aggrandisement and, at best, a sketchy view of what dominates thinking and decision-making among their readership. Nor will it deter such serious and capable journalists as Stephen Glover from pursuing the dream of launching a new newspaper to expound on politics and foreign affairs from inside a celebrity-free zone. Like most of those papers already competing for a fickle and fading readership, Glover's venture will be no more than a useful cog in the democratic machine. No matter how successful any paper is, you can reckon it will make more money than permanent waves.

Just ask Rupert.