Media Matter Nick Thomas Mkuly thanks to my friends at Blackfriars, Oxford, for a splendid dinner this week. Not only was the menu of roast pork and assorted veg followed by bread-and-butter pudding prepared to the highest standard by Brother Tim, whose turn it was to slave in the kitchen instead of attending Mass, but the company of these genial Dominican friars was as warm and stimulating as any to be found in this city of intellectual bons vivants. A truly delightful occasion.
After dinner the conversation, as it does everywhere these days, turned to world events, and my having broken cover at an early stage to media coverage of the rolling tragedy that is Afghanistan. The brethren appear to have little time for television, but they do take five daily papers; all the broadsheets bar the FT, and one tabloid — The Mirror.
Why do they take The Mirror? I asked. At first the reply was that they take The Mirror because they always have — a very Oxford response. But then a more thoughtful defence emerged, namely that in the last couple of months, Piers Morgan's rag has been working hard to look like a serious newspaper, with eight pages every day devoted to the war, and grabbing the moral high ground from The Sun. which has largely sought to give its readers relief frorn all the grim news abroad with its normal diet of sport and celebrity gossip.
The following day I checked out both papers. Sure enough, there was The Mirror with its eight pages of analysis to 7'he Sun's four.
There is a lesson to be learned from this, as well, for over that period The Sun's circulation has dipped. while The Mirror has been the only tabloid to gain readers. In other words, even people who normally buy red tops get fed up with trivia when there's something big going on.
There was a surreal quality to hearing this from a couple of academic theologians in white habits, because it's precisely the line I've been getting from my friend who works for the paper in question, a tough, nononsense Essex lad who has spent his career in tabloids. Never let the phrase "ivory tower" be mentioned in the same breath as the name of Blackfriars.
Newspaper demographics, even on such a microcosmic scale, are always fascinating, but on the basis of the admittedly less than exhaustive sample my two hosts on Sunday, the news is not good for The Herald. It is, I was assured, their favourite Catholic paper, but in the titanic battle between the two editors to grip the attention of the calefactory, Dr Oddie loses out to Piers Morgan, for the understandable reason that even the most dedicated friar needs a break from the religious milieu from time to time. And they don't just read the reportage, but also find all the star drivel, in its way, strangely appealing. After all, a Dominican brother is no less brain-dead than the rest of us first thing in the morning, and needs to crank the faculties into gear by reading something with few long words and a lot of bold type,
But we most not be down-hearted, for perhaps the principle works both ways. David Beckham must get awfully fed up with reading about himself, his wife, and his celebrity chums day after day. Has he never been spotted in the dressing room before a big game, his strip, as I believe it's called, as yet unspattered, calming his nerves with a quick dose of Mary Kenny before kickoff? Who is to say that Kylie Minogue does not secretly thrill at the sight of Damian Thompson's by-line as she rifles through her weekly fix of Catholic common sense in the limo on her way to a gig? There's so much we still have to learn about our readership profile.