March 2, 2020
Author: Ralph Berry

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you want to know about British politics you have to read the Telegraph.  It is to the Conservative High Command what Pravda is to the Kremlin.  The Telegraph editorial writers, reporters, and columnists are deeply embedded in the Party and enjoy its full confidence.  They include Simon Heffer, the biographer of Enoch Powell; William Hague, the former leader of the Conservative party and patron of Rishi Sunak, who inherited his seat in Richmond, Yorkshire; and Fraser Nelson, Editor of the Spectator.  And, finally, Boris Johnson, whose weekly column brought him £275,000 a year before he became Conservative leader.  Since the Conservative Party is also now the party of government, this is a position of unchallengeable strength.  Gordon Rayner may not be a household name, but he is the political editor who frequently appears on the front page of the Telegraph, and his reports tell us with total accuracy what the Government plans and wishes to be known.  The notion of a “scoop,” in its usual journalistic sense, does not apply; this is the future, as those in power announce it.

The Telegraph has no serious rival.  The Times is historically renowned, but is not on the Conservative wavelength.  It is therefore cut off from the sources of real information and power.  After making the epoch-defining error of supporting the Remain campaign, it is left beached with a much-diminished relevance and a stable of columnists who were appointed in palmier days.  Their statement of mind dates from the Liberal ascendancy and seems unable to move on; the bite and targeting of the Telegraph writers is absent.  How can one take seriously the judgment of the Times senior political writer, Philip Collins?  His headline (February 14) was RESHUFFLE SHOWS WEAKNESS AT HEART OF No. 10.  Some weakness, that.

Over the Guardian it is kindness to draw a veil.  The paper still proclaims its standing as “the world’s leading liberal voice”–which might be true, come to think of it.  This voice is largely that of Polly Toynbee, doyenne of the liberal left and cantatrice of cant, who speaks truth to power from her Umbrian villa.  The Adam Smith Institute blog finds regular amusement in Toynbee’s writings.  The Guardian’s Sunday stablemate, The Observer, has been losing caste ever since Suez, when many readers deserted it for ever.  It used to contest on equal terms with the Sunday Times, the two “posh Sundays” of Jimmy Porter.  Readers would balance the drama criticism of Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson, giants of their day.  Nobody now cares about drama criticism, since the stage has descended into gender-bending, diversity, and the long march through the castings.  The circulation figures are now 648,000 for the Sunday Times, 163,000 for the Observer.  The glory days are over.

To the Telegraph hegemony I add a small proviso.  There is one area of news and comment that you will never find in the Telegraph: it is the internal workings of the newspaper itself.  For that you have to look in Private Eye, the satirical and news fortnightly journal.  It has a long-running column, Street of Shame, where the lower employees of the Telegraph and other newspapers share their scuttlebutt.  They cannot be disciplined—the media code of homerta protects them—but they add to the speculation about the proprietors of the Telegraph, the reclusive Barclay brothers.

Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay are twins, and billionaires.  Though based in Monaco, they own Brecqhou, a small island tenement west of Sark in the Channel Islands.  On the 200 acres of Brecqhou, which can be reached only by boat or helicopter, they have built a mock-Gothic castle with granite 100-foot walls and battlements.  It was designed by John Quinlan Terry, the favourite architect of Prince Charles.  Brecqhou is a dependent of Sark, and in recent years the Barclays have striven to make it legally independent, without success.  It is widely accepted that they wish to establish Brecqhou as their own tax haven, and they have made numerous legal challenges to the Sark authorities and government, all without success.  But everything is now in flux, for in late October it was announced that the Barclays were seeking to sell their Telegraph Media Group.  The potential value of the Telegraph must have been enhanced since then by the result of the December general election.  The new owners of the Telegraph, should there be a sale, will have privileged access to the Westminster government to 2024.  Worth bidding for, I’d say.