By Tim Montgomerie
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Some think that newspapers don't matter much anymore. One of those people was once David Cameron. He was elected Tory leader without the support of a single traditional centre right newspaper. He stormed to victory over David Davis because TV's Tom Bradby and Nick Robinson – the long-serving political editors of ITN and the BBC – gave his 2005 speech to the Blackpool Conference such heady write ups. Number 10 do not disregard the press quite so much today. They still think broadcast is dominant but they know that newspapers have played an important part in creating discontent on the Right of politics. They've also understood that the newspapers are an important part of the media food chain. Broadcast journalists often take their lead from newspaper investigative reporting, exclusives and columnists. Readership of newspapers is declining but it's also changing. Some newspapers are investing heavily in digital and hope to prosper in a coming age when it will be hard to distinguish between the TV in your sitting room and the portable communications device in your ruck sack. In this age it will be hard to distinguish between a newspaper and broadcaster.
That, however, is for the future (albeit not-so-distant). The immediate future as far as Cameron is concerned is 2015. An endorsement from the five traditional centre-right-ish daily newspapers on the eve of election day would be useful but what he really needs them to do is to change gear soon, if not now. He needs them to stop attacking his administration over the next 18 to 24 months and start attacking Ed Miliband.
Looking back over the last few days Fleet Street has provided him with mixed signals. The newspapers have certainly increased their attacks on Labour. The Mail – after likening George Osborne to Margaret Thatcher- has unleashed both Max Hastings and Simon Heffer against Ed Miliband since Wednesday. Today's Times (£) has questioned whether Ed Miliband has any kind of economic plan. The Sun has noted the unpopularity of Ed Balls. The Express has, perhaps, been most positive of them all, choosing "Cheers! Budget Boost For Millions" as its Thursday frontpage. Overall, however, the newspapers remain suspicious of Cameron – and in the week that he largely surrendered on Leveson you can easily understand why. The Mail has ran repeated hard-hitting stories on what it sees as the Coalition's unfair policies towards stay-at-home parents. The Telegraph has run four successive front page stories worrying about the childcare policy, a "housing boom", the Coalition's "war on the countryside" and, today, further cuts to the police and armed forces (see side image).
The Guardian's Roy Greenslade has even speculated that The Sun might back UKIP as a way of putting up two fingers to the whole political class. The Sun's Political Editor took to Twitter to dismiss the idea. My hunch is that there might be a bit more warmth to Cameron as the election nears but the era of newspapers championing a party line is largely over. The newspaper industry is in a fight for its economic survival and it has to be obsessed with the concerns of its readers. It simply cannot afford to serve a political party's interests – particularly if that political party is neither particularly popular nor warm to them.
This won't mean that the centre right newspapers won't sometimes be helpful to right-of-centre and Tory candidates. Their campaigning on tax, welfare, immigration and Europe, for example, will be politically useful. But on other issues their representation of their readers' interests (on, for example, NIMBY issuers and unaffordable benefits to grey voters) will make it harder for the Conservative Party to make enlightened choices for the countries and not be punished for doing so.
The Conservative leadership has simultaneously taken the centre right press for granted while wooing – to little benefit – the BBC and Guardian. What it should have been doing was building the best digital machine possible. Its aim should have been to have a database of millions of people, all tagged very carefully so that it knew what each person was most interested in. A digital operation would not replace a strategy for broadcast and print media but it would ensure the party was ready for a new age in which direct communication and social media are going to be more and more valuable. Sadly, that investment in a digital party has hardly begun.