Media: MPs making the most out of Fleet Street

The latest register shows that more politicians are trying their hands at journalism.
LAST MONDAY, at the height of the row over Jack Straw's injunction on the Lawrence report, the House Of Commons witnessed a strange and surreal spectacle - a leading Tory MP flaunting his membership of a trade union. Sir Norman Fowler, Mr Straw's shadow, yelled across the despatch box a declaration that was as passionate as it was unfashionable: "I have been a member of the National Union of Journalists for the past 35 years."

Though Labour MPs emitted a collective "Oooh!" of mock admiration, it wasn't long before Gerald Kaufman was attempting to outflank Sir Norman with a similar boast of his membership of the NUJ. They may abhor the tactics, impulses and downright doggedness of the Fourth Estate, but the link between politicians and the press is clearly as strong today as it ever was.

Evidence of the increasing symbiosis between Westminster and those dismissed by former Chancellor Nigel Lawson as "teenage scribblers" is revealed in the new Register of Members Interests.

Down among the minutiae of declarations of gifts are to be found a series of entries from MPs proving that most are glad to take the shilling of Murdoch, the Mirror Group, Accountancy Age magazine, and indeed anyone else who will have them.

The majority of MPs simply refer to "occasional income from journalism" without specifying the media outlet they most favour, or the amount received. However, the register shows that some members make a very nice earner out of the tawdry trade.

Joint top of the wages league are the formidable Tory Ann Widdecombe and Labour's "Gorgeous" George Galloway, both of whom have suffered at the hands of the tabloids. The two MPs each rake in up to pounds 55,000 a year by penning articles for newspapers. Two other high-earners are Frank Field, who gets up to pounds 20,000 a year, and Alex Salmond, who earns around pounds 15,000.

Such sums may appear large, but the all-time record for MPs' earnings from journalism is still held by Lord Hattersley, a regular columnist with The Guardian, who in the 1997 register confessed to receiving up to pounds 110,000 a year.

The green benches are littered with those who swapped one form of hackery with another. Michael Foot entered the Commons on the back of editorships of both the London Evening Standard and Tribune; Sir Norman Fowler was a reporter on The Times; Ben Bradshaw and Martin Bell worked for the BBC, Yvette Cooper at The Independent; Julie Kirkbride was a lobby correspondent for The Daily Telegraph; and Martin Linton wrote for The Guardian.

The pattern is repeated in government, with the Trade and Industry Ministers Brian Wilson and Michael Wills, the Welsh Secretary Alun Michael and, last but never least, the Spinmeister himself, Peter Mandelson, who famously earned his ciabatta crusts at LWT alongside John Birt.

The traffic until recently has almost always been one way, with Parliament somehow seen as an elevation from the grubby trade. but now an increasing number of MPs have spotted that they can make a decent living as columnists, diarists and even TV presenters should they ever end up on the dole. Matthew Parris, the former Tory MP, has made a highly successful transition to become The Times' Commons sketch writer, while Michael Portillo has made a series of films for Channel Four.

Lord Hattersley stresses that there is a distinction between professional journalists who return to their first love and those MPs who simply try their hand at it occasionally. "I actually regret that there are so few genuine writing MPs because politics and literature ought to go together," he said. "I think if they're good at it, the public don't mind. What the public don't like is politicians trading on their fame and little else. Ken Baker's book on Conservative poets was an embarrassment and a flop. But if MPs can earn a bit of money from it, they will. It keeps them off the streets, I suppose."

Maybe the reason for the switch over to journalism as a fall-back career is hidden in the frequent opinion polls that MPs read. They show that journalists are truly loathed by the public, but that they hate politicians the most.

the top earners from journalism

Stuart Bell (Lab. Middlesborough)

Regular column for Mail on Sunday financial section. Up to pounds 15,000. Regular article for Accountancy Age. Up to pounds 5,000.

Patrick Cormack (Con. South Staffs)

Editor of House Magazine. Up to pounds 15,000.

Roseanna Cunningham (SNP. Perth)

Weekly column for the Scottish Mirror. Up to pounds 20,000.

Frank Field (Lab. Birkenhead)

Regular column for Sunday People. Up to pounds 20,000.

George Galloway (Lab. Glasgow Kelvin)

Regular column, Mail on Sunday. Up to pounds 55,000.

Alex Salmond (SNP. Banff and Buchan)

Weekly racing column, The Herald. Weekly column in News of the World. Up to pounds 15,000.

Ann Widdecombe (Con. Maidstone and the Weald)

Six programmes for Channel 4. Up to pounds 15,000. Weekly column for the Sunday Express. Up to pounds 40,000 for six months.