It is said that after the age of about forty the great Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, read nothing except the Bible and newspapers. These days, alas, newspapers play an ever smaller role in the cultural role of any country. I don’t know a single young person who reads, let alone takes, a newspaper regularly.
I say alas not because I am an uncritical admirer of newspapers, but because I like them. I like the sensation of opening them, and I am one of those strange creatures whom Somerset Maugham describes who hates to have his newspapers read before he has had a chance to read them. If I were enormously rich, I would have my pristine newspapers ironed every morning.
At the rate of their decline, however, there soon may not be any newspapers left to be ironed (not that the prospects of my becoming very rich are great, either). The circulations of the newspapers for which I have written in the past few years have halved – I attribute no causative relationship – and as the population of those who have grown up with them declines, so will their circulations until they are no longer viable. The billionaires will no doubt continue to subsidise professional football clubs, but not newspaper.
Apart from my liking for newspapers, both as a consumer and a producer, do they really deserve to survive? Will the world be a worse or more ill-informed place without them? As they have had to compete more and more with electronic means of providing information, they have become ever less repository of fact and ever more sounding boards of opinion. It is not the facts that they offer, but knowledge of what you think you ought to think about those facts.
The other day, being still in France, I bought the two principal French daily newspapers, Le Figaro and Le Monde, whose total circulation between then in France is less than 600,000. Le Figaro’s headline was Economic policy: Holland wants to change nothing. Le Monde’s headline was a quotation from Mr Hollande himself: We must go quicker and further.
Which newspaper, do you suppose, was more sympathetic to M. Hollande? Reading a newspaper nowadays is increasingly like attending a church in which the doctrine is read out to the faithful. The editor of the Manchester Guardian is supposed to have said (admittedly a long time ago) that comment is free but facts are sacred. I think for most people it is precisely the other way round. Perhaps it was always so.