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End of our Times

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
5 June 2008

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): There is a strong and withering analysis of the "dismal redesign" of The Times by Roy Greenslade in last night's Evening Standard (not available online). I think it has more than commercial significance. The Times was once known as the thundering lion whose roar for the gentleman's empire was respected (ie loved or hated) around the world. The lion has long been dying. I think we can now say it has been terminated. The husk of a newspaper bearing its name may continue. But its role has ceased. As it was the 'Voice of Britain' this has some wider significance.

The Times was broken by Rupert Murdoch. It was not so much his ownership of it, as the rapid seepage of his values and those of the Sun. The critical moment was when it bought the so-called Hitler Diaries on the advice of Trevor Roper, who at the last minute changed his mind about their authenticity. The presses were about to roll and Murdoch ordered the business to go ahead, declaring that they were in "the entertainment business". The inner journalist of everyone who worked on the paper, then and since, wilted at that moment. From now on whether a story was true was to be trumped by whether or not it entertained. It was better to run a "good story" than a true but dull one.

It was not that The Times ceased to be a paper of record. It never really was. It was rather a paper that represented the integrity of the ruling political order of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. When this weakened, as with the appeasement of Hitler, the paper led the way - based on its view of the 'interest' of the country. When the political class got its act together in the fight against Hitler, so did the paper. That extraordinary mixture of labile snobbery, law-based authoritarianism, progressive imperialism, above all (if you will excuse the pun) of intelligent rule - this was represented in and by The Times.

It was the country's mental and hegemonig overlord.
The crucial arena for this was the letters page opposite the leaders. Here the opinion of the political class was shared and probed, protest was registered and prejudice expressed. Consensus politics needed an arena - the letters page of The Times was the hippodrome of the British Empire.

Hence one of the layout changes introduced by the new editor is more than an aesthetic catastrophe. He has moved the leaders to page two. Greenslade notes that this was pioneered by the Daily Mirror. When he was that paper's editor he moved its leaders back to more central pages because "page two is the least read page in any newspaper". This may be unfair to page two. What seems far worse to me is that the move has separated the leaders from the letters page. The forge of opinion has been shattered. The editorials are now - here the analogy is just like 'The Sun Says' - a mere 'view'.

What the readers think is lost someplace else in 'opinion'.
This is good for the Guardian, which Rushbridger has for some years been repositioning as the the 'New Times', and the Telegraph. But that is just a commercial, newspaper thing. There is a larger significance connected to the disintegration of the United Kingdom. There is much talk about the need to identify with 'the institutions' that define Britain in order to preserve the Union and rebuild a feeling of Britishness.

Are these institutions just the monarchy, the army and parliament (meaning Westminster), as David Cameron told the Scots last month? Are they a longer list that includes the BBC as Robert Hazell sets out from the academic Constitution Unit? Should they lead with the NHS as Stuart Weir argues here in OK? Well, The Times was a binding British institution. No member of the country's political class could be without it, whether they lived in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast, and the paper was taken and read in the clubs in all those and other major cities. Numerically, its sales were modest. In terms of influence it was formative.

Linda Colley in her history of the birth of Britain analysed how members of the aristocracy acquired land and houses in different parts of Britain and became genuinly British - as a class they were in a way a different nation. Indeed they talked with their own British accent. The Times was their newspaper. Now there is no longer a British newspaper. What self-respecting member of the Scottish political class would have this rag in their house? They might read Anatol Kaletsky online. If they want a London paper they might choose either... but this is the point, the Union no longer has a paper that joins and reknits the fabric of the Union in a changing world. The BBC is the closest thing we have, hence the significance of the demand for a Scottish news at Six. But equally important there is the Murdoch campaign against the Beeb. The EU may be one dissolving agent of the British Union, but so too is the Mephistopheles of globalisation.

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