It was nine o’clock on the Daily Mail features desk a few years back, and the Why oh Why page, this time with a very dry anti-European piece by a Brussels based writer, was all ready to go – apart from the fact that none of us could think of a headline. The peg was a visit to the UK the next day by the then French president, Jacques Chirac.
The editor Paul Dacre walked by and berated us all, in his inimitable way, for being pathetic. He ordered a full length cutout of Chirac and ran these words down the side: ‘Would you buy a bunch of onions from this man?”
Dacre and his newspapers have always known the power of good comment – and good headlines – and how they help sell newspapers. Witness the piles of cash he throws at Richard Littlejohn.
And he is not alone. All newspapers and their editors realise that what makes them unique, in a world where news is now being regarded as a free commodity, is their comment. It used to be that the hotshot reporters were the darlings of Fleet Street, but not any more.
Now it is what we are calling the commentariat who command the highest salaries and the picture bylines. In a time of shrinking staff, of cuts in the poor bloody infantry of journalism, the comment page writers stay above the fray. As long as their next column is as good as the last one.
It is the commentariat who go a long way to defining a newspaper and what it stands for. Take The Guardian, where Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Freedland are the bastions of liberal thought. But the paper, in a bid to broaden its appeal and exercise the minds of its readers and users also employs, at considerable expense, Simon Jenkins, formerly of The Times, and Max Hastings, formerly of the Telegraph and still of the Mail. (This is not entirely new for The Guardian, where one Enoch Powell used to be a regular columnist).
And over at The Independent, Dominic Lawson and Bruce Anderson take the O’Reilly shilling, along with the South Quay liberals. Comment may be free for some – but not for others.
It all adds up to an extraordinary amount of stuff – more than 50,000 words of comment in the daily papers every day. It’s stuff that can help formulate what politicians and the public think, as well as entertain, inform and amuse.
It is almost certainly true that the amount of anti-Gambling Bill comment caused the Government to water it down. The politicians made reference to people being so opinionated.
That’s the trouble with people with opinions – they’ve got them. Look at the way HBoS ran into trouble over Farepak Christmas hamper controversy. It was when the commentariat got stuck in that they took a bath.
But the trouble with many comment pieces is that you can’t always just read the intro and know what the piece is about. News is much easier to digest and should be cuttable from the bottom. (As the great journalist Peter Corrigan says: ‘Put your joke in the intro and run like **** for the end.”)
Not so with comment. A piece can rehearse the arguments before coming to a conclusion, or may be argued so tightly that the removal of a paragraph is impossible.
In other words, you have to read it all and most of us just don’t have the time. At Editorial Intelligence, we do read it all and, in the case of the top 300 commentariat, produce a two-paragraph summary of their articles. So you can chart what an individual is thinking, but also whether he or she changes her mind.
You can also chart a subject and see who writes about what. EI recently tracked the comment on private equity for a client, while another tracker report concentrated on climate change. It helps people through the maze.
You have to admire the commentariat. Staring at a blank screen at home (many of them are seldom in the office) knowing there is a dedicated space to fill and it won’t go away.
Knowing that they are going to be judged for their wit and wisdom every time. Knowing that their paper’s reputation sails with them now more than ever. Writing to an ever-widening international audience via the web.
And they can never use those immortal words: take in the rest from PA.