Bloodbath at the Telegraph, formerly house journal of the Tory voting shires. Victims of the latest carnage include its former deputy editor Ben Brogan, its blogs editor Damian Thompson and two of its star feature writers Jenny McCartney and Cole Moreton.
Speaking as one who spent most of his journalistic career on the Telegraph – I joined in 1988 and worked variously there as an obituarist, diarist on the (defunct) Peterborough column, and arts correspondent – I can’t say this affords me any Schadenfreude. I loved the Telegraph: for at least two decades it was the only paper to which I subscribed because its generally pro-small-government, pro-tradition, pro-personal-responsibility, pro-freedom, pro-country politics aligned most closely with my own.
But I can’t pretend it isn’t good news for the operation here at Breitbart London. And to understand why all you have to do is look at some of the comments below our posts.
Many of them come from disgruntled ex-Telegraph readers, furious at the studiedly centrist direction their paper has taken, yearning for more of the red-meat conservatism and/or libertarianism which these days they can find almost nowhere in the UK mainstream media but which is Breitbart’s raison d’etre.
It wasn’t always this way. And it didn’t need to be this way. Not so long ago, the Telegraph had a secret weapon in the form of the superb, incisive, tell-it-like-it-is blogs section established by Damian Thompson. Thompson’s unspoken ambition – in sly defiance of the print paper’s increasingly centrist stance – was to create a kind of UK online answer to Fox News. To this end, he recruited a roster of some of the finest right-wing commentators in the business which, at various stages, included: Thatcherism’s living conscience Lord Tebbit; MEP Dan Hannan; Toby Young; Douglas Murray; Ed West.
I was on the list too and, for a period, Telegraph blogs was the only place to be. At least it was if you thought that the media desperately needed a counter to the almost overwhelmingly left-wing online narrative provided by HuffPo, Slate, Salon and the Guardian’s Komment Macht Frei. It was, indeed, like the Telegraph used to be in its glory days, only more colloquial, funny, snarky and up-to-the-minute topical. The traffic was huge; and growing. For example, when it helped break the Climategate scandal, its post garnered over 1.5 million hits.
So what exactly went wrong? Someone, somewhere in the senior Telegraph echelons must have made a calculation, not dissimilar to the one David Cameron made when he decided to drag the Conservatives kicking and squealing into the mushy centre: that even if the paper were to drift leftwards, its right wing readers would remain grudgingly loyal because they would have nowhere else to go.
Among the areas where these readers felt particularly betrayed was in its coverage of environmentalism and climate change. Here – especially in the wake of the Climategate revelations – was not only a barn door sized target but the perfect opportunity for the Telegraph to distance itself from the unthinkingly alarmist narrative being lazily promoted by almost every other newspaper (even, perhaps surprisingly, Rupert Murdoch’s Times and Sunday Times).
In this it had a massive advantage in columnist Christopher Booker, a longtime sceptic whose book The Real Global Warming Disaster remains probably the most thorough, ruthlessly clinical, and irrefutable takedown of the great climate change scam. But rather than build on Booker’s expertise – and speak up for honest science and sound policy – the Telegraph instead recruited as its chief environmental commentator a left-leaning Fabian called Geoffrey Lean, a man so in thrall to the Greenpeace/Friends Of The Earth/IPCC green narrative he might just as well have been George Monbiot’s favourite uncle.
Naturally, as the guy who broke the Climategate story in the MSM and who brought in all that lovely traffic (much of it from the US from readers saying: “Why can’t our media tell it like it is in the way you Brits do?”), I found this depressing not to say a little insulting. So too did the readers. Lean’s environmental columns were always worth a read – not for anything Lean said, but just to catch the deliciously intemperate rage of the readers in the comments below.
But it’s not just its environmental coverage which has been alienating the readership. As becomes clear when you read the comments on the Telegraph’s website, many of them are UKIP voters. And they’re really not at all happy at the way, having initially been very supportive towards Nigel Farage, the paper turned aggressively against him in the run-up to the recent local and European elections.
Perhaps this made sense in terms of keeping in with the Cameron administration. What it signalled to the readers, though, is that the Telegraph has long since ceased to be a paper with any consistent ideological vision. It’s as if these days its politics are decided by focus group – or by whim – rather than according to first principles.
Where does the Telegraph go from here? The signals seem mixed. Its recruitment last year of ex-PBS executive Jason Seiken as editor-in-chief and head of content would suggest an ongoing liberal-leftward direction. On the other hand, it recently recruited as its deputy editor Allister Heath, about as exultantly pro-free-market, pro-small-government a writer as you’ll find anywhere in British journalism.
My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the Telegraph’s fatal mistake has been exactly the same as the one made by Cameron’s Conservatives: disrespecting its own brand, neglecting its core audience. The fact is that there are any number of news outlets there, in print and online and on television, catering to lefties, bleeding heart liberals, progressives and soft centrists. Historically and – in terms of its audience and business model – economically the Telegraph was never meant to be one of them.
The nostalgic in me would dearly love the Telegraph to recapture its old glories. (Which I think it would if it had done with it and appointed, say, Allister Heath or the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson as its full editor). But as Executive Editor of Breitbart London, I’d like anything but. Their loss, after all, is our gain.