Excuse me, but what's wrong with being pro-government?
`In the earnest part of this profession, hatred, loathing and disgust are all currently badges of honour'
Friday 24 December 1999
It all started a couple of weeks ago when The Observer's professional enrage, Nick Cohen, apropos of a criticism I had made of Rhodri Morgan the previous February, insinuated that I was a man who could be relied on to write as No 10 required. That miffed me a little. But three days later Private Eye followed it up by asserting, jokily, that I was at the beck and call of Bill Bush, one of the PM's number crunchers. Then, last Friday, the New Statesman's media expert, Professor Ian Hargreaves, (not unkindly I think) included me in a short list of scribbling Blairites.
So bloody what? There are all kinds of columnists - at least one for every opinion that exists under the sun. There are 10 that advocate crystal therapy. So how am I in any way disadvantaged by being thought to favour a government that itself rides relatively high in public esteem? Here's how.
"You are supposed to be a journalist," my high-minded friend said sternly, as we took a drink together by a canal in Shropshire. "And it is a journalist's job to take on the Government. Yet you often defend it." But why, I demanded, was that my job, any more than it was to take on the Church, the Opposition or - that most powerful force for orthodoxy in this country - my fellow journalists?
My role as a columnist was to write and argue about the world as I saw it. If I thought that the Government was doing a good job, was it really down to me to keep going until I discovered something that disgusted me instead?
"Yes," she replied.
In the earnest part of this profession, hatred, loathing and disgust are all currently badges of honour. If some of my colleagues found something good to say, they would go to bed and lie down until the feeling had passed. The last thing they want is to be implicated, somehow, in the process.
Should Mr Cohen happen upon a bit of evidence that showed Tony Blair to have instituted a policy that favoured the weak and the lame, do you suppose for a moment he would stick it in his column? What passion would that show?
No, they become adamantine critics whose distrust of power (governmental power, at any rate) is absolute. Not for them the attempt to work out what was possible, rather than what was ideal; to calibrate what constituted progress, rather than what must always be - in absolute terms - failure; to allow what the nature of the choice actually was between less and least desirable. As one comedian put it to me the other day, those in power are always - pretty much - those who turned up, a self-selecting group of self-aggrandisers. They do not deserve our understanding. And that, apparently, is objectivity.
I think it can be a form of infantilism. As an electorate, we actually form much of the dilemma with which government eternally wrestles. Alongside the exposes and the lofty critiques of those who are elected or those who wield power, there must be room for a journalism that stands a little inside the process and attempts to understand the issues - and our demands - through the eyes of the protagonists themselves. This is another form of journalism of engagement, and I think that it is both valid and too rare.
There is nothing in that concept that forces any journalist to prostitute him or herself to those in power. I do not deserve Mr Cohen's spiteful criticism, because I have not tried to make darkness into light, altered facts to suit my argument or presented only the side of the case that favoured my prejudices. Thatcherite columnists did that throughout the Conservative years, and it was a betrayal of their readers.
Nor have I been briefed, cold-called, leant on, shown favours or dangled stories. There have been no invitations to Chequers, no glad-handing at garden parties, no fabulous first nights with the stars, no simultaneous rubbings against the Prime Minister and Damon Albarn. I have had two short meetings with Mr Blair in three years and taken part in one round- table with a number of people, including No 10 advisers. That is more or less it.
But I do feel an identification with much of what the Government is trying to do; in particular I experience a fellow feeling for the pointy-heads who work the ideas bit: Geoff Mulgan, the boys Miliband, Andrew Adonis and the Chancellor's Ed Balls. Often their work represents, at the very least, an attempt to cut a path through the Pavlovian political debate of postwar Britain.
But such an obliteration of conventional political divides is immensely threatening to those who are either sustained by the old politics or psychologically comforted by them. Party activists need to see themselves as morally superior to those in other parties, or none. Many journalists also wish to understand the world in terms of historic positions. That is why, I imagine, Roy Hattersley has now assumed the role of universal media New Labour expert that Henry Kissinger once occupied in the field of geopolitics. Here is a man (a very talented one) determined to box the new inside the old. "New Labour," he told Newsnight last week, "has no ideology."
Of course it bloody does, Roy, even if some of its leading protagonists don't know what it is.
In some parts of the profession, this suspicion of New Labour's comprehensiveness has turned into something pathological. Writing in The Spectator a fortnight ago, a Michael Diboll discovered an unexpected parallel between Mr Blair and a Fascist dictator of the Thirties. "In Germany, Jews and homosexuals were among the enemies within; in Blair's New Britain," warned Mr Diboll, "the enemies of the people are `the forces of conservatism of both left and right'."
Mr Diboll does not say how Mr Blair and his Tony-jugend will deal with recalcitrant hereditary peers and obstructive NHS personnel, but one must presume a number of shootings and garrottings for the idea to work, although, in general, today's fascism is more subtle. "While Nazi Germany had the Nuremberg rallies," Mr Diboll dribbles, "New Labour has reduced public life to a soap opera. The latest episode of the soap is the immaculately timed conception of Mrs Blair's baby. Fascism promoted Il Duce as `a hero of vitality' and urged women to engage in a `battle of births'."
Ridiculous, eh? How can an intelligent person write such stuff? Perhaps Mr Diboll is simply the parodist Craig Brown again, laying snares for The Spectator's more eccentric readers and for people like me. Except that a very senior journalist also remarked to me last week that the Blair baby was "suspiciously well-timed".
When I expressed surprise at this unlikely level of calculation I was told - impatiently - that: "David, you're so on-message."
The moral: if it's a choice between bollocks and being thought pro-government, it's far safer to choose bollocks.
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