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The Torygraph is dead, long live the Telegraph

By Mark Wallace
Follow Mark on Twitter.

TelegraphJust as the Church of England used to be the Conservative Party at prayer, the Daily Telegraph was at one time the Conservative Party at breakfast. Marmalade, English Breakfast tea and a hefty dose of support for the party leadership went hand in hand.

The Torygraph tag, certainly popularised by Private Eye if not invented by it, was a fair one for a newspaper which backed the blues through thick and thin.

But things have changed. The most stark evidence of a shift in attitude is the paper's long-running Hands Off Our Land campaign against the Government's reforms to the planning system, has involved everything from petition-gathering with various pressure groups to hard-line critiques of ministers who are supposedly wrecking everything green and/or pleasant. While Nick Boles has been given a more sympathetic hearing recently, he would be the first to admit he's had a torrid time at the Telegraph's hands.

The gloves have well and truly come off.

This isn't a new trend, of course. Insiders at the paper point to its fractious relationship with John Major as evidence that it has been quite some time since the Torygraph nickname was entirely true, and our own Tim Montgomerie wrote in 2007 about the ructions between it and Team Cameron.

While those examples could be written off as bumps in the road or temporary personality clashes, though, it seems clear that there has been a permanent realignment. Stern criticism of the Conservatives which would once have been a notable occurrence is now a regular event - indeed, such criticism has become an integral part of the paper's message.

A change of heart

That message is an intriguing one, which tells us as much about how politics has shifted as it does about the Daily Telegraph itself.

As the population at large have become less likely to join a party or to be deferential to hidebound institutions, the paper has moved with them. It now sees itself more as a voice of the conservative movement than the Conservative Party - a pressure group acting on behalf of its readers. Anyone hoping the Telegraph will "come home" to a post-Cameron Conservative Party will be sorely disappointed - this is a philosophical change, not a personal falling-out.

Notably, that new philosophy includes the inherent tension in modern small-c conservative thinking between preservation and economic liberalism. For example, the Hands Off Our Land campaign is totemic of the former principle, but despite its opposition to the planning reforms the Telegraph still wants to see more houses built.

It also means that a newspaper formerly identified with the Establishment has embraced anti-politics - the MPs' expenses leak was a huge story which was worth running for sales and profile alone, but it was also symptomatic of a newfound enthusiasm to cast a collective plague on all Westminster's houses.

A digital newspaper

These changes in political outlook have occurred at the same time as the Telegraph has radically changed its practical approach to delivering news and commentary, too.

The digital revolution posed challenges and offered opportunities to every major media outlet. While some were slow to embrace new technologies, the Telegraph displayed remarkable sprightliness for a 150-year-old organisation. As early as 1994 it launched one of the first online newspapers, and continues to innovate today.

Many readers of ConHome will also be frequent visitors to the Telegraph Blogs. Carefully selected and cultivated by Damian Thompson, the stable of bloggers attract a vast amount of traffic - drawing readers to the newspaper's website despite its partial paywall on news content.

As the type of politics espoused by the Telegraph has changed, the quantity of coverage - and particularly commentary through its bloggers - has seen a notable increase. Where many papers rely on their Lobby staff alone to provide online content, Thompson has recruited everyone from Toby Young and Dan Hodges to Jacob Rees-Mogg and Norman Tebbit to ensure the site shoots out quality content like a machine gun.

This is the result of careful thought. The rise of the internet has placed new strains on journalists' time and newspapers' resources - where it was once possible to simply file your stories for the next day and be done with it, now there is a constant requirement to update, break new stories during the day, tweet, watch the rolling news and so on. The Telegraph has chosen to focus on what it is known for - particularly politics.

The result of that strategic focus, and the work of the paper's editorial team, has been to offset the fall in hard-copy readers which has affected the Telegraph as much as any newspaper. It has rebalanced its readership by seizing new territory online.

Not perfect yet

Perhaps the only element which is currently lacking is the online presentation. The existing infrastructure doesn't quite seem suited to the task of delivering the range of political news and comment. 

While the design of the blogs is clean, direct and well-targeted for an audience which increasingly arrives at individual articles through social media referrals, the Politics homepage is rather chaotic - neither a snappy summary of the latest news nor a comprehensive run-down of the best the site has to offer. It seems at times as though while the product has been increased and improved, the shop window has yet to be changed accordingly.

Given the Telegraph's track record on embracing digital change, it is unlikely to be long before that issue is ironed out, too, further adding to the paper's heft in Westminster.

All in all, these changes pose a major challenge for David Cameron and those who will come after him. The Daily Telegraph has cut itself loose of its party ties, and adopted a far more pugnacious, champion-of-the-people worldview. In fine conservative style, it has dedicated itself to historic principles whilst using the very newest technologies to promote them. The Torygraph of old may be dead and gone, but it has grown into a beast which is just as important - and all the more tricky to handle.


Correction: While Jacob Rees-Mogg does indeed write for the Telegraph, I'm told he is one of the first MP columnists for its Politics page, not part of its blog team. My apologies for mislocating him.


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