16 MARCH 2002, Page 32

The press will always seem destructive to a man whose intimate pillow-talk has been revealed


Prince Charles thinks that the press is too cynical. So he said in a speech on Monday marking the 300th anniversary of the first national daily newspaper, the Daily Courant. Cynicism is 'the corrosive acid that eats away unseen'. According to him, important national organisations and institutions are undermined if individuals who represent them are continually criticised. I am sure he partly had the royal family in mind, though he did not say so. Prince Charles's point is that the press should recognise that many people do sterling work in all walks of life. To attack the tiny minority who don't is to detract from the very many who do. Newspapers represent the country as being dysfunctional when in truth it is brimming with decent, hardworking and self-sacrificing people.

There is something in what Prince Charles says, but I would like to enter two caveats. The first is that newspapers in general, and the tabloids in particular, make it their business almost to a fault to celebrate the virtues of ordinary people. They may lay into the royal family or the government, but the royal family and the government are not made up of ordinary people. It is different, for example, with the National Health Service or the police force. These organisations are frequently eviscerated as defective institutions while the people who work for them are constantly held up as shining examples. Tabloids are always running stories about sweet nurses, heroic ambulancemen and brave policemen. The reason is surely obvious. Newspapers may criticise the institutions but they don't want to alienate the people who work for them who are also their readers. Of course, they may have a go at a group not represented in great numbers among their readers — the Daily Mail is not over-fond of social workers, or the Guardian of the landed aristocracy — but they will nearly always look after their own.

So the picture may be a bit more complicated than Prince Charles seems to think. He also looks at the press from a standpoint not shared by most of his fellow countrymen. He is part of the small minority of people who read several newspapers frequently, take what they say very seriously, and watch television news with more than a passing interest. You, gentle reader, may he one of their number. A few of us spend so much time scrutinising newspapers and magazines that the press begins to become the way in which we perceive reality. Ills not like that for the majority. (Did you know that a quarter of the 1.4 million As — the top social class — never read newspapers?) For most people newspapers are simply one among several influences. If, like Prince Charles, you have had your intimate pillow-talk reproduced in the Sun, you are liable to be acutely aware of the potentially destructive power of the press. But for many millions of people newspapers inhabit the margins of their lives, and their 'corrosive' cynicism, which I believe is less pervasive than Prince Charles thinks, may have relatively little impact on them.

Irecently mentioned that the Times is parting company with the polling organisation MORI. One contributing factor was the paper's feeling, particularly during the last election, that MORI had overestimated New Labour's lead over the Tories. Now I learn that, having experienced similar reservations, the Daily Telegraph has cut its links with Gallup. The average Labour lead during the last election campaign was 16 points in the case of Gallup. and 20 in the case of MORI. On the day, New Labour was just over 9 points ahead.

The Daily Telegraph will be using a combination of NOP and a new polling company called YouGov. I should have said in my piece of 9 February that YouGov was the polling organisation which came closest to predicting the actual result on 7 June. Its poll in Sunday Business had New Labour 10 per cent in front four days before the election, and 11 per cent a week earlier. This would seem to make nonsense of suggestions made by people such as Bob Worcester of MORI that the Tories made a very strong late run.

YouGov has introduced revolutionary techniques. All its polling is done on the Internet. It has a pool of some 58,000 respondents, representing a cross-section, from which it selects larger samples — typically between 2,000 and 10,000 — than are generally used by rival organisations. It also pays its respondents. (One suggestion is that, if they are not paid. prospective Tory voters are less inclined to take part than Labour or Liberal Democrat voters.) It is true that only 50 per cent of people are on the Internet, but there are plenty of them in the lower social categories, so the sample need not be skewed. Interestingly, YouGov's latest poll for the Mail on Sunday gives Labour 42 points, Tories 31 and Liberal Democrats 20. This is closer in line with the last election than MORI's last polls for the Times, which showed an even more whopping Labour lead.

One of the delights of recent months has been the sight of Jeremy Paxman walking his dogs in the Parks in Oxford. He has been passing a sabbatical here while his house in the country is extended. Mr Paxman's peregrinations are eagerly attended not only by north Oxford ladies but also by shoals of female undergraduates for whom, as the compere of University Challenge, he is something of a godlike figure.

His return to BBC2's Newsnight is certainly welcome. Whatever you may think about his sneering, aggressive style of interviewing, he is the only one who brings authority to the show. The same cannot be said as he takes up the reins again on Radio Four's Start the Week. On Monday Paxo set about Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, whose new book he charitably described as a 'rant worthy of Victor Meldrew'. Mr Woodhead is obviously clever and always composed, and so was more than able to hold his own. But this confrontational approach, sometimes effective when applied to politicians, destroys the more discursive and conversational ambience of Start the Week.

In its heyday the programme was introduced by Melvyn Bragg who, though sometimes waspish, is an intellectual interested in discussing ideas rather than stamping on them. BBC nabobs ruled that Melve should give it up when he took the Labour whip in the House of Lords. (A lunatic decision, given the appointments of Labour donors Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies respectively as BBC director-general and chairman.) Paxo was at that time looking to boost his income and so, disastrously, was given Start the Week. Melve meanwhile set up shop on Thursday morning with the more highbrow In Our Time on Radio Four. He chooses a subject and invites three or four clever and wellinformed people to talk about it without kicking their heads in. It is by far the best thing on radio, for which Melve deserves the adulation and thanks of the nation as Paxo, in his bower-boy role, merits its contempt.