Let me introduce a newspaper-by-newspaper series of Salut! articles on the state of the UK national press. I have been back in the UK for three months after living abroad since the spring of 2004. What have I made of my reacquaintance with the British press? Which titles deserve to flourish and which would be no loss if they failed even to survive? The series will offer no more than one person's view and I would be interested to hear what others think ...
STOP PRESS: lots of water under the bridge since this article appeared: see this update - The brave new world of newspapers: engineers to replace quality writing
Where better to start than with The Daily Telegraph?
In the archived section of the Telegraph website's blogs by former foreign correspondents could be found, until recently, the postings I contributed online while also trawling France for news and features for the print edition. Individual items still respond to searches, but the section has either disappeared or been shunted into out-of-the-way sidings.
The blurb accompanying my photograph was altered after my departure to say I had worked for the paper for 28 years, which was nearly right. It was 29 years, a term that ended abruptly in September 2006.
So how has the paper fared without me?
Firstly, a confession. For reasons some may find understandable, I choose generally not to buy it. But I do see copies left by others or provided free in airport lounges, in hotels and so on. And for the purposes of this appraisal, I did suspend my own policy and bought the Telegraph for a closer look.
I therefore feel reasonably equipped to offer a view.
The Daily Telegraph's best days have been those when the paper was a vibrant mixture of comprehensive news, business and sports coverage from Britain and overseas, Right-wing comment that could be witty and elegant as well as quite bonkers, a challenging but not impossible crossword and, since the innovative reign of Max Hastings, a proper appreciation that modern readers also want plenty of features and a broad sweep of the arts. If the politics of the paper could hardly be doubted, the integrity of news reporting was such that many from the centre and Left found themselves pleasantly surprised by its honesty and balance.
Older Telegraph people may argue that at least one of those elements has been compromised in more recent times, but I get the impression that the Telegraph's values, broadly, have not changed so much. There is more trivia and celebrity "news", and a lot more shrieking in the headlines, but changes in society have probably made that inescapable. My instinct tells me that balance and the contents of the very thorough Telegraph style guide count for rather less these days.
As a first reaction to recent news that Will Lewis had been succeeded as editor by Tony Gallagher, I typed the word "crikey" in response to a text message from the friend who had let me know.
Gallagher's move from the Daily Mail to the Telegraph was not received with universal warmth.
A Guardian Media profile acknowledged his brilliance as a newsman but added: "That doesn't mean he is well-liked by everyone who has worked for him – and many former Telegraph journalists privately complain about his management style. Even his friends concede that, as an executive, he employed the same brutal management techniques he was subjected to as a young journalist."
No wonder Telegraph traditionalists, and external mischief-makers, saw him as part of an injection by Murdoch MacLennan of slightly unsavoury Mail elements into an environment MacLennan, on behalf of the Barclay twins, found cosy and complacent.
People like Gallagher, they reasoned, would shake things up, drag the old paper into the 21st century and see off as many relics of the past as they could in the process. Have they succeeded? Up to a point.
They have certainly got rid of large numbers of editorial and other staff. "Good people" have been among the casualties, Lewis himself has admitted. But let us be fair; some good people have been recruited, too. Getting Ben Brogan to return from the Mail was undeniably smart (he has risen swiftly and is now Gallagher's deputy). And some old readers' favourites remain: among them Hilary Alexander on fashion, the football writer Henry Winter and the UK's best pocket cartoonist, Matt.
For a time, however, the paper seemed to have lost its way completely.
Far too many news reports were marked as if written by a "Daily Telegraph Reporter". This was a little lie. The signature is a euphemism for agency copy shovelled into the paper to fill up space or compensate for staff failures to cover everything that needed covering.
This led to squeals of anguish from the diminishing band of Old Telegraph hands still on the staff, and even from a few who thought themselves New Telegraph from the most recent modernisation. Badly written stories, breaking rule after rule of a style book once considered quite important, sailed untouched or little touched into the paper.
But then something else happened: the House of Commons expenses row. Gallagher, by now editing the paper in the absence of Lewis (who was at Havard being groomed for his new executive role), masterminded the best newspaper scoop in ages, dripfeeding details of a genuine scandal over an extended period that ensured huge publicity for the Telegraph and a useful rise in circulation.
When Gallagher's elevation to the editorship was announced, someone left a comment at the Guardian Media site to the effect that "on the road" - that is, as a travelling reporter - he had been "cold", not unpleasant but distant.
Our paths crossed rarely but from what little I saw of him, that seems a fair assessment. And I mean it as a compliment. Gallagher was less likely to be found nursing a nightcap in the hotel favoured by the press pack than not found at all; he would have sloped off to spend the evening making a few more calls or visits to make sure he was ahead of the game.
My abiding memory of him is from a German courtroom, where a case involving IRA suspects had just been adjourned. Gallagher called across as the prisoners were led away and asked if they had any message, if I recall correctly, for the family of a servicemen's baby killed in error in the name of Irish republicanism.
As the product of a southern Irish family; Gallagher probably felt particularly well qualified to ask the question. But it was a classic Mail trick, and while some other reporters present tut-tutted at the breach of courtroom etiquette, the circumstances of the time meant the question was also perfectly justified.
Needless to say, most of those reporters forgot their disapproval and included the exchange - the response may have been no more than a snarl - when sending their own stories.
A man who worked closely with Gallagher echoes the view that he has superb news organisational skills. He also identifies considerable intelligence and a quiet thoughtfulness.
As the Guardian Media profile suggests, Gallagher is ruthless and shows little patience with those he considers incompetent or disruptive. He could probably not have prospered at the Mail had he been otherwise.
How much weight he attaches to matters of style, taste and substance is open to debate. In one edition of the paper I bought, that of Dec 7, there was plenty of evidence that thought and planning had gone into the Sunday-for-Monday mix.
There were only two or three "Daily Telegraph Reporter" bylines, though lots of short stories, almost certainly taken from agencies, had been arranged without trace of authorship in columns. Someone had been allowed to write the following Daily Star-style introduction to a story: "Comedians Ricky Gervais, Matt Lucas and David Walliams and television presenters Ant and Dec ... " I trust there are still people old enough to remind the reporter or sub-editor concerned what the first page of the Telegraph style book has to say on such constructions. Of course newspapers have to run lighter stories, but even lighter stories can be written as if intended to be read by adults.
Gallagher will consider he has bigger issues to address. Despite the gains won by the expenses scandal, the paper's circulation is in disturbing long-term decline. Where do these readers go? Out of the newspaper-buying market altogether, I suspect.
Traditional Telegraph buyers who feel unhappy about the way the paper has gone would hardly find the answer to their dissatisfaction in the pages of any of the other national dailies.
One of the Telegraph's best assets is that it still looks like a serious newspaper, in large measure because it has clung to a broadsheet format. Another is that the new editor is a man with reassuring commitment to news.
In the fashion of X Factor, no longer the kind of programme the Telegraph would dream of covering only on the TV pages, I would - as a judge - say the paper deserves to stay for the next round.
The audience gets the final vote. But as Will Lewis takes his newly acquired business knowledge and enthusiasm for digital journalism to fresh tasks in offices next to Euston station, there is reason to believe enough readers will vote the paper through and ensure there is life for the print edition yet.