Press Column

It takes a lot to make an astrologer sympathetic, but Sabine Durrant managed it, interviewing Jonathan Cainer for the Guardian. Cainer is the man whose move from the Daily Mail to the Daily Express caused a wonderfully old-fashioned tabloid row. Itís still not sure, after all the coverage, how much he was actually paid by the Mail (whose editor, according to published accounts, is on about £675,000 a year). The original figure thrown around was a million pounds. Now he says that he was on a basic rate of only £80,000; but that he made another half a million from his fifty-fifty share of the merchandising. When he wanted to go, they did offer him a flat million a year and another million in bonuses. Then they threatened to sue him for breach of contract if he didnít accept. This is the Mail we know and love: I mean this without irony. A paper that values its astrologer, and believes that the readers notice who it is, might also value journalists, and believe the readers care about them.

Cainer agrees. That is why he has done a deal with the Express where he takes a huge salary cut (the Guardian says he will work for free) in exchange for all his merchandising rights. Itís an interesting piece of newspaper economics. It turns the Express into something closer to the "virtual newspaper" that David Montgomery was always trying to invent. This would employ a tiny core staff (at one stage the Independent on Sunday had a full-time staff of six, I believe) who might have to be paid properly. But the central staff would commission, not write; all the other content providers would be paid little or nothing: ideally, like advertisers, they would pay to appear in the paper. So far, running a newspaper as if it were real pays off tremendously: the Mailís circulation is 2.4m and rising; the Express is bobbling around just above the magic million figure, and the full-price circulation of the Independent on Sunday seems to be about 170,000. But the virtual model is much closer to the emerging economics of web journalism.

And the economics of astrology are such that it makes perfect sense for Cainer. What he is really getting in lieu of salary is a free full-page ad, heavily plugged elsewhere in the paper, for his chatline services, which offer personalised messages. "What are they?" he asked Sabine Durrant, and answered his own question: "Glorified answering machines. Twelve. One for Aries, Taurus Ö with lots of lines going in: thatís all they blooming well are. The overheads are bugger all. The costs are bugger all. And you can buy the equipment for less that 25 grand. Thatís a hell of a profit margin."

Indeed. A printed personal profile (£22.00) is produced on the same kind of basis, by a computer program. 35 pages, properly bound and printed, took four minutes to produce "Er, normally we try to conceal how quickly these are done." No wonder he can afford to employ 25 women churning this kind of stuff out. But if the piece had been merely a meditation on the economics of astrology, it wouldnít have been nearly so interesting. What lifted it above the run of the mill debunking job were Cainerís own comments on the astrology, and the details of his personal life.

He appears to be the kind of Jack Spong of astrology. "Letís be clear about this. I believe in astrology. Astrology is a belief system, not an art or a science, though there is a bit of art and science chucked in, and I am a true subscriber to that belief. But my belief system gets a bit stretched when I find myself in the game f forecasting for a twelfth of the population." How the outsider is meant to distinguish this kind of belief from unbelief is not clear. The newspaper horoscopes, he says, are simply pithy homilies."You read your horoscope when your partnerís splitting up from you, when you domestic life is crap. You look at your horoscope because youíre desperate: youíll look anywhere. So to that extent it makes no difference what sign you are or where the planets are. My job is to be Ö Lucy, the five cent psychoanalyst from Peanuts."

I love this. Itís not only breathtakingly honest, but it suggests why people might prefer some astrologers to others. Perhaps the brisk general maxim really is more useful and so more accurately addresses the situation, than the cloudy menace which a less confident person might suppose is the natural tone with which to predict the days events for five or six million people.

Then he told her about his personal life: nearly ten years ago his wife died after a car crash, leaving him with seven children, among them twins still being breast-fed. He never got to see her in hospital, but while he was serving tea for the children, he saw a vision of her in the corner of the room, at about the time she died in surgery. He told Sabine Durrant, in a slightly embarrasses way that he had had "innumerable" conversations with her since, "She only really moved further away when I got help with the childcare." This phenomenon of conversation with dead spouses seems to be extremely common: it seems admirable of someone in the astrology business to treat it in such a matter of fact way.

She ends the piece deliciously, when he walks across the room and shouts three times into her tape recorder "Astrologers canít read the future." I bet that came as a shock. This kind of interview, that is revealing without being exploitative, demands rare qualities from both parties involved. Everything else in the papers this week that had any religious connection seemed to be about section 28; though I might regret devoting a whole column to one piece, this was one interview that was better than sex.

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