Hot gossip: the new career move
In this golden age of bad faith, one revealing anecdote is worth years of old-fashioned public loyalty
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Tuesday 08 June 1999
The journalist celebrities seem mildly puzzled. One talks about the dangers of becoming too involved in a story, another discusses how he uses different forms of writing to express his views; the third tells an anecdote about correspondents who become hooked on conflict. Possibly they have each decided that now is not the moment to share confidences about the dark nights of the soul of a correspondent. Alternatively - and somehow this seems more likely - the idea that there could be a higher calling than that of correspondent or columnist has simply not occurred to them.
Something odd seems to have happened to journalists. Until relatively recently, while a sort of honour accrued to people who did and made things - running a business, chasing criminals, sitting in parliament - those that padded around the sidelines, writing, commenting and analysing, were generally deemed to be outside the mainstream of national life. "If one wants to be primarily a writer, then, in our society, one is an animal that is tolerated but not encouraged - something rather like a house sparrow," George Orwell wrote in Horizon in 1936. "One gets on better if one realises one's position from the start."
All that has changed. While certain writers - poets, serious-minded novelists - remain relatively sparrow-like, those that deal in reportage and opinion have become eagles, soaring over the landscape of contemporary events in search of their prey. So undergraduates ignore Economics, Politics or Law in favour of that great non-event of a new discipline, Media Studies. Where a person of ambition might once have moved from journalism into politics, today the process is reversed: a brief career in parliament is seen as a preparation for a leap upwards into media punditry, with a succession of MPs moving from the tedium of canvassing for votes to the more egotistical excitements of promoting their own books.
On a stage or in a bookshop near the three eminent foreign correspondents, the latest authors in this tradition, George Walden and Gyles Brandreth, are to be found promoting their witty, acerbic, self-serving insights into a government of which they were once part. One might imagine that for men of talent to dip into politics, then, as soon as the going gets tough, to desert to the media with titillating insider gossip about the very ministers to whom they once kowtowed, might be the subject of criticism among reviewers of their books, but not a bit of it. In this golden age of bad faith, one irreverent and revealing anecdote is worth years of old-fashioned public loyalty.
Of course, there is a place for the skittish political memoir, and it is probably useful to have a few former parliamentarians among the ranks of the vast army of opinion-makers now at work in the media. But the elevation of comment and backchat over achievement means that Orwell's house sparrows are accorded a dangerous amount of power. The semi-detached politician, that wry and knowing type who can mock his former colleagues, understand irony and appear utterly at home among the sanctimonious professional sneerers of Have I Got News for You has become a familiar media hero.
The outsiders of yesterday are now at the heart of the new establishment. Those who talk, write and analyse for a living have become contemptuous of those working away beyond the walls of what Alan Partridge called the "chateau of chat". Recently attending one of Private Eye magazine's fortnightly lunches, I found it interesting how much of the political and media gossip revolved around the magazine, as if the process of reporting on news, rumour and on the rise and fall of reputations had somehow become as significant as the event itself. There was an undisguised pride in Private Eye's own sneaky influence in national life.
It would be good to think that someone beyond the media magic circle - a person with a real job in the outside world - would have gazed on our little group of happy, giggling chatterers with a pitying disdain, but it seems more likely that he would have asked for an invitation to the next lunch.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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