Newspapers are like human beings. They can attract or repel, reassure or infuriate, form lasting bonds but also provoke fierce disappointment when you can’t get the one you want. The better ones have a distinct voice and strong views. The ones you disapprove of can grate, rile and exacerbate. Ultimately, we all have our favourites and passionately, even obstinately, stand by them.
Like pet dogs or old slippers, a newspaper can become a part of your life. It becomes a daily habit. Its presence on your doormat helps the day start. Its opinion on a controversy often makes your own mind up. And, everyday, on almost every subject, it frames your perspective, fills in your horizon and determines your vision. In fact, it becomes a friend.
So consider how seven million Brits must feel this morning when the absence of their favourite News of The World leaves an aching hole at the start of their Sunday. Writing in 1946, George Orwell claimed NoTW was an essential part of the British week-end: “You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose and open the News of The World.”
I wouldn’t disagree although I got to know the paper in less sedate circumstances. As a new Sixth Former at Stowe, I was puzzled by the scramble each Sunday for this particular publication.
“What’s so special about it?” I asked Patrick Filmer-Sankey, or Filthy-Hanky as he was affectionately called. Patrick and I shared a study. His mother, the actress Adrienne Corri, was the star of the blockbuster film A Clockwork Orange. Patrick’s fame was directly connected to her electrifying on-screen rape.
“Here, judge for yourself” and he handed me a copy he’d snitched from the headmaster’s office. I was mesmerised by the many stories of rape, incest, adultery and assorted fornication. As a 16-year-old, what more could I have wanted?
Not surprisingly, ‘The News of the Screws’ became compulsory Sunday morning reading. But it wasn’t just priapic and pimply school boys who were addicted to its fare. The teaching staff found it equally irresistible. The masters’ common room had a subscription for three copies all of which disappeared before lunch. The other papers came in ones but could still be found after dinner.
However, what I did not realise at school was that a newspaper’s popularity also confers power. Its seven million readers constitute a following NoTW can deliver to whichever political party or leader it chooses to champion. Just how effectively was illustrated by a banker friend of my wife Nisha.
It happened on polling day in 1992. The popular bet was Labour but Phillip Porter was convinced the Tories would hold on. His confidence was both intriguing and irritating. “How can you be so certain?” I asked.
“Haven’t you seen the front page of ‘The News of the Screws’?” To be honest that wasn’t a part of the paper I paid attention to. The stories I chortled over, about vicars caught inflagrante or milkmen who delivered more than a daily pint, were deeper inside.
“The paper’s supporting Major,” Phillip explained. “He’ll win.” And he did. The next morning NoTW’s sister publication The Sun, a Siamese twin which had similarly endorsed the Conservatives, claimed victory: “It’s The Sun wot won it!” Many agreed.
Last week, the front page of the last edition of NoTW bid adieu: “Thank you & Goodbye”. Millions will respond to that poignant farewell with regret. I’m one of them.
The views expressed by the author are personal