The Times it is a’ changin’

I had a vague memory of a literary quote to the effect that when a man changes his newspaper after many years it is a seismic event. Since I am now in the process of changing my newspaper, this seemed a good quote to put at the top of this blog, so I Googled it. There was only one result. The quote came from my first novel. Not only do I find it hard to remember what other people write, it seems I can no longer remember what I write myself.  

“Mark my words,” said Sandrine Lefèvre, “when a man changes his newspaper after 36 years, it signifies a great deal.” She was speaking of Feliks Zhukovski, in the final chapter of The Breaking of Eggs. Feliks was switching from L’Humanité, a Communist newspaper, to Libération, a paper of the left. I am changing from The Times to The Guardian, and in my case it is not 36 years, but 50. A lifetime, near enough.

The quality of all newspapers varies over time. But if one likes a paper, and identifies with it, there is no great difficulty in waiting a few years until a new editor comes along. The Times has had a few appalling editors over these 50 years, or at least editors who have produced a third-rate newspaper. In the past, I have always held on. But no longer.

The present editor of The Times, John Witherow, is producing a dismal newspaper. He is not helped by the fact that his immediate predecessor, James Harding, was extremely good. I feared the worst when Witherow took over, having ceased to subscribe to the Sunday Times under his editorship. It has taken a while, but now it has happened. In-depth news coverage is practically non-existent. There is no incisive comment on current affairs. Stories are reported for their salaciousness, not for their significance. A picture of a young ‘celebrity’ woman appears on the front page most days. Some outstanding columnists remain, but they are less prominent now and those who are gradually replacing them are not in the same league.

The first consequence of all this is that The Times is doing extremely well as an up-market version of the Daily Mail. Its circulation has gone up by 12% since Witherow took command. It has just overtaken the Daily Telegraph and is now Britain’s best-selling quality newspaper, if one stretches the definition of the word ‘quality’.

The second consequence is that I have cancelled my subscription. Rupert Murdoch will probably not be bothered. I should think I am exactly the type of person he does not want to read his newspaper. He probably has me down as a Guardian reader already.

But I am not a natural Guardian reader. I have spent most of my life disliking it intensely and satirising those who read it. When my wife-to-be moved in nine years ago, I apparently told her (only half in jest) that The Guardian would be admitted to the house only over my dead body. As far as I know, I am not dead yet.

When people change newspapers, it often reflects a change in their political thinking, as it did with Feliks Zhukovski. Not in this case. My politics have always been centre-right and they remain centre-right. They are a far better natural fit with The Times than with The Guardian. But, when I read a newspaper, I want to be informed, I want to be stimulated and I want to be told things I don’t already know. None of this now happens with The Times. It is early days but, on a brief acquaintanceship so far, it does happen with The Guardian. For the same reason, I prefer to watch Channel 4 News, although Jon Snow must be the most biased news presenter on television.

Detaching oneself from a subscription to The Times is not easy. I had assumed that dropping them an email and cancelling the direct debit would suffice. Oh no. They don’t let you go that easily. I got an automated reply telling me that cancelling the debit made no difference to my financial obligations to Times Newspapers and that I would have to telephone them to justify my apostasy.

When I did, I was asked why I wished to unsubscribe, so I gave a potted version of what I’ve written here. I think I said that the news coverage was pathetic. “Maybe that’s because there isn’t much news at the moment,” said the man. That had never occurred to me. There’s no news in The Times because nothing much is happening in the world. Official.

“Whatever is or is not happening,” I said, “it should be possible for you to comment on it incisively.” “The trouble,” said the man, “is that it could be construed as biased journalism.” So that’s official too. Newspapers shouldn’t offer opinions in case they might be thought biased. I didn’t pursue that avenue of discussion. He asked me which paper I was switching to, so I told him. Then he offered me a reduced subscription “to make it a bit easier for you”. And then, when that failed to do the trick, he asked if there was anything else he could do to make me change my mind. “Sack the editor,” I said. At least he laughed.

So there we are. I am now a Guardian reader. I expect to rot in hell for eternity, but it’s better than being bored to death. “Mark my words … it signifies a great deal.” Yes, Sandrine, but what exactly?