Papers went big on foreign news and story counts were high, but celebrities, features and columnists were a rare commodity
HOW did readers know what to think in 1984? Once you get over the minuscule, blurred pictures and the lack of colour, the first thing that strikes you about the newspapers of that year is the paucity of opinionated columnists. The finger-jabbing, red-faced anger of today's commentariat, the passionate, omniscient certainty with which they declare opinions, scarcely existed 25 years ago. Incredibly, the Sunday Times – under that most opinionated of editors, Andrew Neil – did not then have a single serious regular weekly columnist, its political pundit Hugo Young having recently decamped to the Guardian.
The paper had three, sometimes only two, bylined comment pieces. They contained few surprises: the deputy director of the National Farmers Union demanded the government "be fair to farmers" while Michael Meacher, then Labour social services spokesman, defended the welfare state. The Daily Telegraph had one bylined comment a day, with only TE Utley and John O'Sullivan appearing regularly.
Some days, the Daily Mail offered no opinions on anything except through leaders and, by implication, headlines. On Thursdays, its op-ed carried reviews of six, sometimes eight, hardback books. Even the Sun, edited by a swaggering Kelvin MacKenzie, had only one serious weekly columnist: John Vincent, a Bristol history professor. Richard Littlejohn he was not: "Neil Kinnock's recent promise to renationalise everything that Mrs Thatcher has denationalised was, perhaps, a shade impetuous," began a typical column.
Although 24-hour radio news stations had been established, TV equivalents were some years away. Newspapers believed that their prime duty was to report what had happened the previous day. The pages may have been fewer – the Sun (owned by Rupert Murdoch) was typically 32 tabloid pages, the Telegraph had 36 broadsheet pages in one section – but the number of news stories was, if anything, slightly higher than in today's papers.
Nearly all stories had "yesterday" in the first sentence. The future tense – "the minister is expected to say today", "Club X will this week sign Player Y" – was rare. Foreign news had a higher priority: the Daily Mail put it on page four, while the Telegraph published front-page bulletins about the declining health of the general secretary of the Italian Communist party.
The broadsheets offered daily coverage of parliamentary debate – but no commentator or analyst gave any context; readers were left to make up their own minds.
Celebrity culture was in its infancy. The comedian Dick Emery was exposed by his ex-wife as "a flop in bed" ("Even my pink undies didn't turn him on") while a "playgirl", in the News of the World's first tabloid issue, revealed "my frolics" with Prince Andrew. Ron Atkinson, then Manchester Utd manager, had an extramarital affair that provoked Jean Rook, the Daily Express columnist billed as "the first lady of Fleet Street", into a paroxysm of rage.
Rook, and her Daily Mail counterpart Lynda Lee-Potter, were just about the only columnists offering advice to erring celebs who, even in the tabloids, made the splash only if they were royal. It now seems a strangely innocent time. The scandal was mostly in the missionary position, the only sex aids were frilly undies and nobody apparently snorted or tried bondage. As for the broadsheets, they remained aloof from popular culture. When the Sunday Times reported a musician's secret love affair, it was the long-dead classical composer Edward Elgar. Neil introduced a spread called "People" which included the head of a civil service union and the former head of a thinktank. Guardian readers got a diet of trade unions, green belts and polytechnics; on a lucky day, they might get a story about a cat up a tree.
Features were sparse, and confessional journalism almost unknown – the Telegraph's features, for example, included: "Taking a close look at stitching through the ages" and "Showing the best of British baskets". Similarly, the Sunday Express, still a broadsheet, followed a formula which required exactly the same type of story on the same page each week.
Were newspapers then better or worse? By today's standards, they certainly seem calmer. The big story of 1984 was the miners' strike and Margaret Thatcher's battle to crush it. Readers could have been in little doubt where most papers stood. Headlines and stories, particularly in the Sun and the Mail, portrayed the miners as "thugs" and the pickets as "a mob". In a leader, the Express announced itself "SICK to death of this violent, meaningless and unnecessary … strike".
But the effect was less overwhelming. This was not just because newspapers had fewer intemperate columnists. It was also because even the miners' strike did not dominate page after page, creating a kind of emotional tsunami, as a similar issue might now. On the broadsheets particularly, width of coverage counted for more than depth of coverage. Over the past 25 years, we have come to learn more and more – and to be given more definite opinions – about less and less.