I recently gave up a career as a journalist to become a Member of Parliament. This prompted a few radio chat shows, and more recently the UK Press Gazette, to take a look at journalistic hacks who become political hacks. The tenor of their questions was: why on earth did you give up all the power and influence of a job on a national newspaper for a job that is notoriously devoid of any power - namely, that of a backbencher?
My standard response was to say it was an arrogance for individual journalists to believe they had any power or influence over government. None of them had power and I couldn't name more than half a dozen who had what I would call influence.
I did not have any particular half dozen in mind, but I've been asked to nominate six and I'm happy to do so, although I do it in order to emphasise how few rather than how many journalists can be called "influential".
It would be easy to add to the list, because all journalists can influence events if they can bring new insights or information to the public debate. But I am not talking of the consequences that an article may have. I am talking more narrowly about whether any journalists can influence government in any kind of systematic way through the articles they write.
The obvious place to look for this kind of influence is on the editorial pages of the national newspapers, the "facing" or editorial opinion pages, and the in-house columnists and outside contributors who appear on them. The first point to make is that articles from outside contributors are often more powerful than anything in-house. A well argued article by an expert in the field has the best chance of influencing policy-makers but it's tempting to rely on a stable of regular columnists who can write well and can come up with 900 words on the subject of the day by 2.30pm.
In any case there are some influential columnists on my list, including Don Macintyre from The Independent, Hugo Young from The Guardian and Peter Riddell from The Times. There are others who are expert enough on their own subjects to write really powerful columns. I could mention Melanie Phillips in the Sunday Times and Polly Toynbee in The Guardian.
It is more hair-raising for editors to find outside experts. They may not write as vividly. They may not be able to bend to the pressures of deadlines. But they are far more likely - to borrow an old advertisement for The Times - to know their onions.
This is an area where I am happy to acknowledge - I don't think I'm being paid for this article - that the facing page of The Independent often scores over others by finding good outside writers. The Express and the Daily Mail are also good at commissioning outside, whereas The Guardian, for example, relies almost entirely on its own columnists. There was a time generally in newspapers when specialist journalists were often called on to write in greater depth about the issues in the news on the facing page, but they seem to have gone out of fashion.
On the right subject on the right day they are usually far more effective than the over-marketed "vivid writers". I have included one example on my list, Nick Timmins, who is not only an expert on social services but has also written the definitive history of the welfare state, The Five Giants.
My other two nominees are the editors of The Sun and The Mirror, who wield little positive influence, but a great deal of potential negative influence - for the wounding of reputations, rather than for the winning of arguments. Negative influence, like negative campaigning, can be devastating. You have to remember - as I'm sure Tony Blair does - that The Sun was read by a fifth of voters at its peak and, more important, a third of "don't knows".
However, Downing Street is far more likely to try to influence journalists than to be influenced by them. This is not because of the arrogance of politicians, but because journalists don't focus on policy issues in the way that politicians do. Just as politicians underestimate journalists, so journalists give too little credit to the fact that politics is a serious business. Its practitioners need to develop particular skills. Policy-making is perhaps the most important.
I don't pretend for one moment that my job as a Government backbencher gives me any great influence. But at least I feel I've tuned in to the debate. And having been on both ends of the politician-journalist relationship, I begin to understand how people must feel when they have been through a sex-change operation.
Politics looks very different from the inside, and so does journalism. But the two need to meet. And if newspapers are the forum in which public debate takes place, the crucible in which policies are cast and recast, then a lot of them are not exerting as much influence as they might.
Martin Linton, Labour MP for Battersea, worked on `The Guardian' from 1981-1997
The Independent's Donald Macintyre, who is currently finishing a biography of Peter Mandelson, has a subtle political brain and is the kind of journalist ministers see as well worth trying to influence - though it's not easily done.
Hugo Young, a columnist for my Alma Mater, The Guardian, can be a devastatingly powerful ally to have on your side. He is widely respected, and on the right day and with the right subject, he oozes gravitas.
Peter Riddell, of The Times, has a brain like a giant sponge which soaks up millions of facts before he expresses an opinion. His articles are always very well argued, although that doesn't always make them right.
Nick Timmins, formerly of The Independent but now the public policy editor of the Financial Times, is the prototype of the specialist journalist whose influence stems from his knowledge.
The editor of The Sun, David Yelland, I nominate not so much for the articles he runs - two recent ones, on gays and on the euro, have blown up in his face - but for strike power on politicians' personal reputations.
For similar reasons, the editor of The Mirror, Piers Morgan, again not for the articles he runs - certainly not for those on Prince Harry - but for the articles he, usually, restrains his reporters from writing.Reuse content