It’s a nasty war. There are those who claim there is little to choose between two of the main protagonists – that they both are barbarous, treacherous and unforgiving. And while the missiles continue to fly back and forth, the rest of us can only worry and wonder: where will it all end? Yes, it’s tough on the front line of the circulation battle, where The Mirror and The Sun are locked in vicious combat – no quarter given or asked for.
There are chilling life-or-death skirmishes going on elsewhere, with such titles as the two Expresses, The Scotsman and its Sunday sister and the Sunday People all fighting for survival.
But it is the spitting, clawing, bare-knuckle brawl between the two biggest red-tops that may well alter the face of British journalism, and not only among the tabloids.
At the time of writing, there can be no doubt that General Piers Morgan has tactically outflanked his opposite number. The one-time trivialist experienced a journalistic conversion, not on the road to Damascus, nor, come to that, on the red-carpeted approach to Concorde’s much-publicised, champagne-swilling junket to celebrate its return to service, but a conversion nonetheless.
It was some time before Morgan took to the skies with rock star Sting that he experienced his own sting – one of conscience – and set The Mirror on course for what has been outstanding coverage of the Afghanistan conflict.
Morgan pushed the right buttons and The Mirror asked the right questions, refusing to adopt the gung-ho, uncritical stance favoured by David Yelland’s Sun.
Morgan also concluded that the events of 11 September and their aftermath had radically altered readers’ requirements.
"I detect a change in public mood," he told the audience in a remarkably assured appearance on BBC1’s Question Time. The public had "had their fill" of sex scandals, said the editor who had already attacked the celebrity culture that sadly has increasingly dominated the national press. In future, he had declared, The Mirror would cease co-operating with PRs who demand copy and picture approval on behalf of their clients.
Yelland’s response was to intensify the hostilities between the two papers that had been overshadowed by the real thing in Afghanistan.
But he overreached himself in accusing The Mirror of treachery, earning condemnation from all but the hardest of right-wingers and causing Evening Standard columnist Matthew Norman to accuse him of "unfettered, venal imbecility" and describe him as "a grotesque embarrassment" to journalism.
So there can be no doubt that The Mirror is winning the war. But, more importantly, can it win the peace?
Sceptics have already pointed out that, after encouraging sales figures for September, circulation of The Mirror fell back in October.
How long could Morgan’s nerve hold, they wondered, before he once again revised his opinion of public taste and scurried back to the bunker of wall-to-wall celebrity, reality TV dross and illicit leg-overs? But the fact is that every daily title took a tumble in October.
With the exception of the soaraway Daily Mail and the tits-and-ass-dominated Daily Star, tabloid sales were not only down on the previous month, they were below those of the same month last year.
And the year-on-year figures for the six-monthly period ending in October showed that The Times and The Daily Telegraph are also among the walking wounded.
At a recent London Press Club debate on the state of the press, to which I contributed, the distinguished former editor Bernard Shrimsley said that prior to 11 September he believed the two papers that had most noticeably plunged down market were The Mirror and The Times. I think he might have added the Telegraph, although most can cite so many examples of dumbing down by all papers that it’s a wonder the press hasn’t been turned into a Jim Carrey movie.
Yelland’s belief that readers would desert The Sun if not fed their familiar diet of frivolity was off-beam. Readers went under the wire anyway. The Sun shed more than 100,000 copies (3.14 per cent) month-on-month, as against The Mirror’s loss of not much more than half that – 2.55 per cent of its September sales.
In the mid-Seventies, Tom Wolfe’s book, The New Journalism, celebrated the very different style brought to reporting and feature writing by journalists such as Gay Telese, Truman Capote, Nicholas Tomalin of The Sunday Times and Wolfe himself. This approach to newspaper writing, using the techniques and descriptive narrative of the novelist, is commonplace now, but was then revolutionary.
Morgan’s redirection of The Mirror is not as radical – as I suggested to the Press Club audience, it is really the New Old Journalism – but it could have even more dramatic consequences. If he is right about the public mood, and he certainly struck populist chords with the Question Time audience last week, we could see a seismic change in editorial direction at several national newspaper groups.
Of course, there would still be room for trivia. Why, the Telegraph could even continue its obsession with Liz Hurley – and to feature salacious pictures under the guise of serious social observation (the naked couple being very intimate in the film Intimacy), used by the paper to illustrate a recent Joan Bakewell piece on nudity, sex and violence, was tabloid projection at its best.
And what if the gospel according to Morgan does nothing to halt the gradual circulation decline in whose grip the tabloids have suffered for years? Well, at least The Mirror’s editor, like the ships’ captains in those stiff-upper-lip British war movies that crop up frequently on television, can sink with courage and honour. Who’d ever have thought it?
Observer columnist Richard Ingrams commented, among others, on the similarities between Augustus Melmotte, the money-obsessed tyrant in the current television dramatisation of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now ("Love it like any other luxury. You have no right to it unless you can afford it") and the late Robert Maxwell.
Some time ago, not long after Maxwell’s death, I was struck with the same thought when reading JB Priestley’s Angel Pavement, in which the "rotten swine" James Golspie plunders a number of lives before sailing away. Unlike Maxwell, he avoids tumbling into the ocean. How is it, then, that students of Trollope and Priestley, or those who remember the BBC’s 1958 serialisation of Angel Pavement, didn’t warn the rest of us about the old rogue?
One can forgive Julie Burchill almost anything for having written of David Beckham that speech is his second language. But the mot was reduced to being slightly less bon when, in a Radio 5 Live interview, she was barely articulate and, complaining of "feeling stupid", squeaked her way out of the studio. The presenters didn’t complain – a case of both sparing the Burchill and spoiling the child.