On a train recently, I was able to see what the other people around me were reading.
We were sitting at a table, four of us, all with laptops or tablets. In the window, in the reflection, I could look at their screens. We were all on Mail Online.
Apart from my sheer nosiness, what else could be gleaned from this observation? That dailymail.co.uk is an extremely alluring beast, such that people from different walks of life are attracted to it. And if I wanted an illustration of the power of digital over print here it was. None of us was studying a newspaper, magazine or book.
It was a Virgin train going north on the West Coast line. Now, Virgin has decided to stop selling the Daily Mail on board its trains along the same route. The train company’s staff object, apparently, to the newspaper’s coverage of various issues, and a ban has therefore been imposed.
Not only is this bizarre – given that anyone can purchase a copy elsewhere before boarding a Virgin train, or as I found they can peruse the paper’s sister website to their heart’s content – but it is public relations suicide.
Virgin workers may not share the paper’s stance on a range of causes, from the EU to immigration to LGBT rights to unemployment, but to ban the sale of the paper? What are they thinking? More to the point, what is Sir Richard Branson, the firm’s boss, thinking?
No one is more PR-savvy than Branson, nobody in the past has exhibited a surer touch when it comes to promoting themselves or their brand.
Branson has been telling us for years that he is Virgin, that the company and founder are inseparable, their values identical. He promotes himself to promote Virgin. Now we know that those standards he so aspires to include restricting choice and controlling freedom of expression.
For once, Branson’s deftness has deserted him. Free speech, and that includes a free press, is one of the tenets we hold dear. It’s something we cite whenever asked why we fought world wars, and what it is we regard as special about the UK, about our democracy.
The Daily Mail may not be to all tastes. But that can be said of any newspaper, any publication. If you don’t like it, you have the licence not to buy it. Nobody is forcing you to digest it, let alone agree with its contents.
Some of Branson’s workers were annoyed by the Daily Mail. So what? As I say, no one was requiring them to read it. Could it be that Branson himself, the hippy billionaire and Remainer, does not approve of the Brexit-supporting Daily Mail? Almost certainly. But to allow that opposition to get in the way of something as precious as press freedom – something he also, surely, agrees passionately about – is hysterical.
Thanks to Virgin’s move, a sale of just 70 papers a day on its West Coast line has now become a cause celebre, with Branson and his company accused by politicians of every hue, of censorship.
Even Labour, no friend of the Daily Mail, has voiced its support for the paper. The party will not restrict sales of the Daily Mail, if it succeeded in renationalising the railways. A spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn said the Labour leader was an “enthusiastic supporter of a free press and the pluralism of the press. Obviously, private companies will decide what they want to stock on their trains.”
Downing Street said the move was ultimately a decision for Virgin Trains but Prime Minister Theresa May had “always been clear on the importance of a free press to our democracy”.
And Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, a former journalist, tweeted: “Absurd ban on Daily Mail by Virgin! Pompous, censorious and wrong #virginontheridiculous”.
The Society of Editors, that counts many editors among its members, voiced its opposition, saying the decision taken by Virgin Trains “smacks of censorship”.
Virgin has managed to stir up political leaders, and antagonised the rest of the press as well. Well done.
What Branson, the PR-master, has failed to do is to keep things in perspective. He’s created a major issue, one that was bound to see a rallying round of support for the Daily Mail, and one, inevitably, that has inserted him into the centre of it.
The slippery slope towards a boycott of all Virgin products because the company abhors freedom beckons. From irritation, possibly anger, at one newspaper Branson faces the very real prospect of a public relations crisis. It’s extraordinary that one normally so smart should have committed such a grave error. Branson should extricate himself from this particular hole, and restore the Daily Mail, before it is too late.
Although, perhaps he intends to go further. After all, why stop at the Daily Mail? At present Virgin’s West Coast trains stock alternative titles, but presumably, if they step out of line they too will be struck off.
Or next, Virgin’s cabin attendants and ticket inspectors disapprove of what we’re reading on our screens and we’re ordered to switch sites or to turn them off completely. Branson and co have started something that has an unpleasant odour about it and will not have a happy ending.
Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and executive director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns and strategic communications advisory firm