Clark and the Press

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The Independent Culture
ALAN CLARK hated the Fourth Estate but loved the journalists employed by it. Newspapers were "sharks" and "shits", especially when they encouraged the Conservative Party to ditch his heroine, Margaret Thatcher.

And yet Mr Clark enjoyed immensely the company - and hospitality - of the political editors and columnists who wrote the stories. The feeling was mutual; he was much more knowledgeable, indiscreet and fun than most Cabinet ministers. He loved to gossip about politics, even with avowedly liberal and left-wing journalists such as Alastair Campbell, the former political editor of The Mirror. Their surprisingly warm relationship continued when Mr Campbell became press secretary to Tony Blair in 1994, much to the consternation of the Tory high command. They still chatted regularly when Mr Campbell moved to Downing Street with Mr Blair in 1997.

"He was a journalist's dream and [Tory] spin doctor's nightmare," Mr Campbell recalled yesterday. "I know I should never have liked him, but I did."

Mr Clark could turn nasty when the press turned on him. He sued the London Evening Standard over its regular spoofs of his diaries, saying readers believed he wrote them. He won substantial damages, but was still pounds 80,000 out of pocket.

He denounced The Sunday Times for alleging that he encouraged Matrix Churchill to export machine tools to Iraq, later admitting he had been "economical with the actualite" when the company was prosecuted for breaking the arms embargo.

In Mr Clark's world, there were rules, and he expected the media to play by them. He declined to give television interviews about the hapless performance of William Hague earlier this year. Yet he was happy to denounce Mr Hague off the record as a "dead duck" who simply "hasn't got it", fuelling speculation that he might be challenged for the Tory leadership. For him, the media had its place in the wonderful game of politics.

Andrew Grice, Political Editor