Feud - and it's a scorcher!
Right-wing controversialist Paul Johnson and the Guardian are natural enemies. But now mere enmity has turned into a vendetta.
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Monday 28 July 1997
In the blue corner, terracotta-complexioned and bizarrely tonsured, sits Paul Johnson, journalist (Daily Mail, Spectator), historian and right- wing polemicist, scourge of the liberal-left consensus, friend of Jonathan Aitken, supporter of Neil Hamilton, passionate Thatcherite and all-purpose Mr Irascible. In the red corner sits mild and blinking Matthew Norman, Guardian diarist, sometime Evening Standard columnist and television critic, a man of some enterprise and mettle, judging by the way he stood up to Peregrine Worsthorne in Radio 4's Vices and Virtues, when Sir Perry was trying to make him admit he wasn't so much a journalist as a comic turn.
The war between them is unusual in that Johnson purports not to notice Norman's existence. Norman, by contrast, refers to Johnson constantly as "my sane and rational friend" and refuses to engage with him on any serious points. Readers must gauge for themselves who is winning the war, after recalling the skirmishes so far:
May 3. Johnson accuses the Guardian's former editor, Peter Preston, of forgery, brings up the affair of Guardian journalist Richard Gott and the KGB, and belabours the paper's new editor, Alan Rusbridger, for running the splash "A Liar and a Cheat" about Neil Hamilton. Suggesting that Rusbridger has "lost his marbles", Johnson calls this "the clearest example of the abuse of press power in living memory".
May 16. The Guardian Diary makes fun of a Johnson piece from Scotland about sexual etiquette, complete with "hoots mon" vox pop.
June 6. The Diary pooh-poohs Johnson's implied claim in the Daily Mail that he is privy to Tony Blair's intended plans for pension schemes.
June 27. In the Spectator, Johnson launches another broadside against the Guardian and a ringing defence of his friend Jonathan Aitken. Why, he asks, does the press dislike the former cabinet minister? Because journalists are ugly, stunted, poor, henpecked and frustrated (unlike Aitken and, by extension, Johnson) and thus terribly jealous of the defence procurer's charm, house, family, manners and panache. It may be true, says Johnson, that Aitken "is not always 16 annas to the rupee; but he is 15 and a half. I would rate the Guardian editor a mere six ... "
June 27 (Part II). The Guardian Diary calls Johnson's attacks "a series of ferocious counter-strikes aimed not a million miles, reading between the lines, from Farringdon Road". All that stuff about nasty, stunted, betting-shop-haunting hacks ... "Did he really have to be so personal?" asks an offended Norman.
July 5. In the Spectator, Johnson writes a main feature about the abuse of power by press "barons". He is not talking about Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black or Lord Rothermere, however, but the "baron" editors, from whose ranks, inevitably, he singles out Rusbridger for having "accelerated the decline of a fine newspaper into the gutter". The article rehashes previous accusations: that Preston was a forger, that the Guardian's relationship with Mohamed Al Fayed is mysteriously cosy, that Richard Gott's exposure as a KGB contact was laughed off, that Rusbridger is a dilettante and gossip writer of low morals. Johnson slates the editor's "moral confusion" and double standards: "If Aitken tells a lie, it is a crime against civilisation. If Rusbridger or his underlings get their facts wrong ... it is all in a day's work". And while we're at it, why should Hamilton and Aitken not be allowed to accept Al Fayed's hospitality, since Guardian journalists accept "freebies" all the time?
July 10. The "freebie" question hits home. The Guardian Diary, while reporting Johnson's interest in the Moonies, glancingly alludes to a trip to Korea taken by Johnson in 1992 at the invitation of the American chief Moonie, Larry Moffat.
July 11. The Diary reports on Aitken fallout at the Beefsteak Club and the farcical circumstances of Johnson's joining it.
July 18. A new battle front opens. Falling on Johnson's book The Quest for God, the Diary amusingly rewrites one of its prayers, as a plea from Princess Diana to Mr Al Fayed ("Vouchsafe me succour at the hands of Levantine grocers ...").
July 23. The Diary offers another prayer from Johnson's DIY prayer book, "Prayer for a friend who has suffered a grievous reverse", asking the Lord to look kindly on a "lying bastard and unashamed perjurer ..."
July 25. Johnson returns, spitting fire. Suddenly the debate is not about the abuse of press power. It is all about freebies. He attacks Rusbridger and Hugo Young (chairman of the Guardian-owning Scott Trust) for flying to Hong Kong, courtesy of the Guardian. He complains that the Korea trip was not a freebie but a "commercial speaking engagement". He rehashes the arguments about the forgery, the fax, the KGB connection, the abandonment of the doctrine "Comment is free but facts are sacred". Then, throwing restraint to the winds, he complains about his treatment by the Diary: "I have lost count of the number of falsehoods Rusbridger has published about me, for daring to criticise himself and his paper. They are numbered in dozens, indeed in scores." And he is not, he points out, bonkers. "A favourite lie he prints about me is that I am mad, criminally insane, fit only for the padded cell."
July 25. The Guardian Diary rejects Johnson's suggestion that they ever said he was "criminally" insane and threaten to complain to the Press Complaints Committee for propagating lies ...
And that's how the battle currently stands. After watching the spectacle, for a month now, of Johnson brandishing a Claymore to fight off a Diary gadfly, we now face two possible outcomes. One is that Johnson will take his various complaints about the Guardian (forgery, lying, taking free holidays) to a higher authority than the PCC and force some kind of public exposure. The other is that Johnson will simply exploden
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