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January = skiing royals; October = Strictly

What would editors do without these and other hardy perennials? Liz Gerard looks at some of the nationals’ editorial short-cuts.

Liz Gerard

Posted on: 27 November 2016


Yummy mummies, moppets in red

Hurling snowballs, pulling sleds.

Gritters, snow ploughs, traffic jams,

Toddlers in fields of cuddly lambs.

Crowded beaches, ice-cream cones,

Office staff on mobile phones.

Giggly Glastonbury mudlarks

Frying eggs in scorching car parks.

Star’s fur-lined boots and woollen skirt,

Golden leaves at Westonbirt

Inverted brollies, jack-knifed trucks

Flooded roads with swimming ducks.

Boats on rooves and fallen trees,

How picture eds depend on these!

What do you do when there isn’t any news?

Every journalist has been asked that question, and every news editor has struggled on a “slow news day”. But, of course, there is always news. Lots of it. It’s just not necessarily the sort of news that editors believe their readers want – or would pay - to read.

Foreign stories, for example. The tabloids are reluctant to tackle anything that doesn’t involve Brits or bashing the EU, and the heavies are also wary – even when the leadership of the Western world is at stake. We may have seen a lot of Donald Trump, but there has been very little serious front-page coverage of the US presidential election.

Terrorist attacks on Western or Israeli targets command attention. Atrocities in Africa or South America do not. Nor are the papers much interested in what goes on in the Indian sub-continent or Australasia, despite the fact that millions of Britons have links with them.

There are wars, famine, disasters, mass murders all over the world – we are to blame for some of them – but they tend to break through to our consciousness only when there is a compelling picture (The Times was particularly bold with its starving Yemeni picture in October). Or if there is nothing much happening at home.

Instead, the Press keeps its focus on an ever-narrowing spectrum of news, relentlessly London-centric and dominated by the Westminster bubble.

Whole websites are devoted to mocking the Daily Express’s limited agenda – the EU, migrants and benefits scroungers, miracle cures, weather, pensions and house prices - but every paper has pet subjects that it will return to if there is no must-tell live news story. These may be the result of a thought-out editorial policy or simply because there are specialists on the staff who can be relied upon to have an emergency splash in their notebook.

The Guardian goes for education, employment, economics, the environment and equality. The Times likes security issues and - even before Andrew Norfolk’s award-winning investigation into grooming gangs in Rotherham – has paid more attention than most to cases of sexual abuse. The Telegraph is strong on transport and has a better grasp of rural concerns (albeit from the Conservative landowner perspective) than any other national title.

The Mail is less concerned than the Express with pensions and the weather, but the BBC, the NHS and charities are among organisations that can be guaranteed to get it hot under the collar.

The Mirror goes big on crime and human interest, while the Sun and Star depend heavily on television and football stars.

The Star has the most discernible news cycle, which sees it through, year in, year out:


CBB or Big Bro or BB (all shorthand for Celebrity Big Brother) race row, con, stun, fight, stars quit, shame, fix, romp shock, sex and booze orgy, finale

Killer storm (the Star is confident that a tree will fall on a car or that someone somewhere will have a heart attack or a car crash)

Big freeze

Testicle-eating fish invade

Royals go skiing

Super rats the size of toddlers invade

Cheltenham and Aintree (the splash shrinks to a couple of inches)


BGT (Britain’s Got Talent) cheat storm, secret baby, race row, fix

New plague of giant rats

Magaluf (or other Spanish / Greek resort) Brits shame

BB returns, race attack, live sex show, shock secret, house of lust


Psycho seagulls in horror attack, steal your chips, steal your babies

Invasion of killer jellyfish

BB bully row, sex in house, boobs battle, axe over race jibe, fix, live naked sex romp, security alert, star in quit shock, nervous breakdown

Britain to bake for 8 weeks (not to be confused with the eight weeks of Bake-Off)

Hell storm to batter Britain

X Factor catfight, judge sacked, judge quits, lesbian romp shocker, Si’s secret shocker, fix

Strictly sexy threesome, shock strip video, sex shocker, fix, race row, crisis, star quits shocker

Flesh-eating spiders

Terror clowns stalk schoolkids, sweep Britain, nicked


Haunted Cowell calls in exorcist

Black-eyed ghost children haunt celebs

TV jungle (I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here) line-up, tell-all sensation, steamy babe, sex camp, fix, bully storm, fumble, naked romps, £1m winner

Strictly shocking affair

Snow blitz

X Factor shocker

Giant rats invade

Happy Christmas everyone

Sometimes the Star’s various worlds collide, as on June 21, when it led on “BB star and Prem ace sex tape”. And, sometimes, one of its seasonal specials turns into a real story that goes on to reach a wider audience – like the terror clowns this autumn.

It takes a lot (or a lottery “scandal” – Richard Desmond runs a rival draw, so Camelot is a frequent target) to disrupt the pattern, but it should be said that with breaking news, the Star often demonstrates a sharper news sense than its rivals.

“The Press keeps its focus on an ever-narrowing spectrum of news, relentlessly London-centric and dominated by the Westminster bubble.”

Lego etc

And while the Star may be the most predictable, every paper has its calendar, if only for promotions. If it’s Monday, there’ll be a puff for The Game above The Times titlepiece; if it’s Saturday, watch out for country walks and puzzles in The Telegraph.

The aspirational Mail punctuates its year with offers to make sure readers always look their best: “stylish” fleeces, designer scarves, panama hats, a handbag just like Mrs Thatcher’s and pearl and white sapphire earrings just like the Queen’s - not to mention various beauty products from Dove and Elizabeth Earle. For the kids, there are free Lego toys twice a year (collect from WH Smith).

For the New Year and late spring holiday booking seasons, the Sun has £9.50 caravan holidays, the Express £1 ferry sailings to France, the Mail £15 family holidays to the UK and Europe and the Star £4 trips to Pontins. The Telegraph, which devotes whole supplements to cruises and exotic holidays, goes in for half-price stays at luxury hotels.

Every front page sprouts poppies in November (apart from the Express, which pins its colours to the masthead in mid-October), and they all have diets in January (to lose the festive pounds), May (to get ready for the beach), September (to lose the holiday pounds) and December (to look good in that party frock).

You have to hand it to the Mirror, which ran two weeks of Slimming World diets in January – and immediately followed the series with a feature on “how to lose 2 stone without dieting”.

Between those diets – and regular stories about the “obesity epidemic” – there is an insatiable obsession with food.

“Eat!” is the biggest word on The Times front page every Saturday and the other “serious” papers all trumpet their weekend foodie specials. Then there are the pull-outs featuring Jamie, Nigella, Heston, the Hairy Bikers, Paul Hollywood, Mary Berry, Nadiya et al, plus recipes to beat just about every dread disease. Meanwhile, Jancis, David and Victoria list their best summer, winter, festive wines.

On top of these come the freebies, which this year have included noodles, Pepsi, scones, crème eggs, burgers, fruit juice, salami snacks, Cornetto and Oreo ice creams, crisps, a loaf of bread, a bottle of milk, ice tea, coffee, a roasting chicken, pizza, Mars bars, a Christmas turkey and – on the day the Express declared it “Decision time on EU exit” – a pack of croissants. Not a full English?

The Mail asks “Is wine ruining your looks?” and then gives away a bottle of Prosecco.

Picture desks also have their hardy perennials: the Chancellor with his red case on Budget day, leaping girls in spaghetti straps on A-level results day, runners wrapped in tinfoil on London Marathon day, outlandish hats at Royal Ascot, anthropomorphic dogs at Cruft’s, women with giant pot plants on the last day of the Chelsea Flower Show. And the weather.

Sometimes, someone decides that these are so clichéd that a new twist has to be found – and then the twists become so contrived that someone else says, “why not go back to the original?”

“The redtops are not alone in being glued to the box: the one-eyed monster stretches its tentacles across Fleet Street.”

Strictly TV

The redtops are not alone in being glued to the box: the one-eyed monster stretches its tentacles across Fleet Street. The white-tops may rail against the profligacy of the BBC, the unequal competition and the licence fee, but that doesn’t stop them using the corporation’s output to boost circulation. Poldark, The Night Manager, War and Peace, Strictly, Top Gear, Bake-Off are all bankers. Sometimes, as with the Clarkson fiasco and the sale of Bake-Off, they even produce real news stories.

There was a time that someone holding a trophy or spraying Champagne everywhere would be a shoo-in for a Monday or, failing that, a sliding footballer or a cricketer holding his bat aloft. Now you are more likely to see Ed Balls in a glittery shirt, with football consigned to the puff. But sport still comes into its own on the big occasions: the Euros, the Olympics - where a winner wrapped in the Union Flag remains irresistible – and Wimbledon – especially if Murray wins.

Fashion weeks and the bigger screen provide the glitz. The Telegraph loves a red carpet picture and the Mail loves anyone it can have a bitch about: “Why DO so many celebrities have knobbly knees / big feet?”

The ultimate bitch-fest comes in April with the frocks appraisal after the Oscars, the biggest of another clutch of bankers – award ceremonies.

The Baftas? Check. The Brits? Check. Bob Dylan winning the Nobel prize for literature? Absolutely (but forget the rest - unless the peace prize is controversial).

The Booker? Er, perhaps not unless the author is a pretty woman. The Mercury? If there’s a scene. The Turner? If we can sniff. The Stirling? The what?

For while the arts serve all the papers well, it’s a very narrow and increasingly lowbrow view of the arts. One that excludes most non-chart music, theatre, painting, literature, sculpture, architecture – anything without a television or film link. Hollywood stars taking to the stage are deemed worthy of attention; distinguished theatre actors without a screen persona rarely feature.

The same applies to celebrity deaths, of which there have been many this year. The King of Thailand made only one par on only one front page – The Times. The Express did not mention him, but trumpeted: “Official: Queen is world’s longest reigning monarch”.

Our royals are, of course, the ultimate bankers. By the end of October, they had made 235 front-page appearances in the national dailies. Kate may be the most photogenic, Harry the most charming, George the cheekiest, but with 91 appearances so far, the Queen reigns supreme. Britain’s longest reigning monarch, the world’s longest reigning monarch, and seemingly indefatigable at 90, most papers can’t get enough of her.

And when she’s not available, there’s always Madeleine McCann – or the weather.

“Our royals are, of course, the ultimate bankers. By the end of October, they had made 235 front-page appearances in the national dailies.”

About Liz Gerard
(Details last updated: 1 March 2017)

Liz Gerard worked for The Times for more than 30 years, latterly as night editor and business night editor. She now edits the journalism website SubScribe and was named media commentator of the year at the EI Comment Awards in 2014 and 2016.

Tel: 0780 3366035

Email: Send a message to this author


Twitter: @gameoldgirl

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