From hack to MP: a blurring of the line
Is a journalist who becomes an MP - the ambition of Michael Gove of 'The Times' - really gaining that much power?
Sunday 11 July 2004
Michael Gove, Assistant Editor of 'The Times' and familiar to listeners of BBC Radio 4's 'The Moral Maze', was last week selected as the Conservative candidate for the safe seat of Surrey Heath at the next election. From journalist to politician is a well-trodden path. But what is the transition like? And how do the two worlds compare? We asked five of those who have done what Gove is aiming to do.
Ruth Kelly, Economic Secretary at the Treasury, Former economics writer, 'The Guardian'
Politics is hugely fulfilling, more fulfilling than journalism. It's more like a vocation than anything else. People go into politics because they want to make the world a better place. It sounds a bit trite to say that, but I believe it's true. There are really huge opportunities to make a difference in politics that you don't have in journalism. There are on the backbenches and, of course, there are in government. That's why it's so rewarding. In some respects, journalism is a good training for a politician. But politics does carry with it a tremendous amount of gossip and a great deal of emphasis on personalities rather than substance. That's something I very much regret about it.
Denis MacShane, Minister for Europe, Former radio journalist and president, National Union of Journalists
I love writing. My computer is full of articles in favour of Europe that I can't get published, perhaps because I was never a very good journalist, but I find being in government the most thrilling part of my working life. The chance to do something is infinitely more rewarding than the chance to write something. Those who can become government ministers - those who can't write about government ministers. In journalism and in politics, you find people fighting the same battles. I've heard far more vicious criticism of politicians from journalists than from other politicians. I've always regarded political activism and journalism as two sides of the same coin. Trevor Kavanagh [political editor of The Sun], a lobby journalist whom I hold in high regard, is a politician to his fingertips, with the overarching ideological aim of taking Britain out of Europe. If you look at the greatest politicians, such as Winston Churchill or Willy Brandt - or even Mussolini or Trotsky - they all started life as journalists and editors. Politicians who can't write will not convince.
Martin Bell, Served as an Independent MP for four years from 1997, Former foreign correspondent for the BBC
I found the transition a bit uncomfortable because some colleagues felt I'd crossed a line you shouldn't cross. I had no problem arguing that one. Anyone is free to stand for Parliament, and just because you are a journalist is no reason not to. As an MP I did find it useful having been in the media - you know who the ill-intentioned journalists are, and you know how to do the necessary soundbite. But I wouldn't say I ever played the media game - in four years in Parliament I only ever issued two press releases - and one of those was about a penny-farthing race. In many ways, politics and journalism are very similar worlds. They both attract rather driven, competitive people - the kind who feel it's not enough just to succeed - you have to do so at others' expense. As to whether one has more influence as an MP, I'm not sure. If you can be both - like Boris Johnson - it's obviously better than just being one or the other. I'd say Boris has far more influence as a journalist than as an MP. That's why there are so many politicians who are now writing columns in newspapers - I'm sure it's connected to the decline in the influence of the House of Commons. MPs are taking out their frustration at being marginalised.
Shona McIsaac, Labour MP for Cleethorpes, Former sub-editor on women's magazines, including 'Bella' and 'Chat'
Being an MP edges it over journalism on the fulfilment stakes because you get to change people's lives for the better. Since I was not exactly John Humphrys when I was in the media I have to say I have more power now. I know Humphrys thinks he's one of the most powerful people in the land. Life is far bitchier in the media - and the gossip is much better too. I knew more about what was going on in the Commons when I was outside. The media is a very good preparation for politics. It teaches you what matters to people and the effective use of language. My advice to Mr Gove would be: "Don't behave like a hack if you get here or you'll get torn to pieces."
Julie Kirkbride, Tory MP for Bromsgrove, Former political correspondent for 'The Daily Telegraph' and 'The Sunday Telegraph'
Journalism is great for throwing stones but not so good for actually doing anything. I wanted to be a doer not a scribbler. A backbench MP may have less power than a local councillor but even the most successful editor can't change things, whereas an MP has the possibility of becoming a minister. Both are rough rides, but MPs are more prone to personal attack. The editors' club mentality tends to protect journalists. Although getting your message across is vital, there is one way in which journalism isn't a terribly good preparation.
The ability to see something from all sides might be useful in a newspaper office or when drawing up a policy. But once the line is out, MPs must stick to it and that sort of tribal loyalty is more valued than one's power of analysis.
Interviews by Andy McSmith, Francis Elliott and Simon O'Hagan
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