Media families; 4. The Johnsons

Paul Johnson (columnist) begat Daniel (op-ed editor), Luke (columnist) and Sophie (TV soap writer)
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The Independent Online
Paul Johnson has been talking a lot of good sense recently in his "And Another Thing" column in The Spectator. Abolish the House of Lords, he declares, replace it with a British version of the US Senate. Cleanse the Augean stables of Westminster by voting in new Labour and Tony Blair, "a clean, high-principled and vigorous young man, a modern Hercules". "The Major regime," he writes, "is a bunch of nobodies doing nothing much, and deeply knavish in addition."

Spring is on the way, the winds of change are blowing, but none the less it is moving to see one apparently so mired in bufferdom as Johnson suddenly revived, talking as if change were possible and politics might again be exciting, as if even his old bones were ready to spring up and kick their heels. But if that old grouch has gone all smarmy and vernal, where are we to go for our weekly fix of vitriol?

I recommend the Review section of Sunday Business, where Luke Johnson, Paul's millionaire businessman son, chairman of Pizza Express and much else besides, is firing on all miserabilist, misanthropic cylinders in his column.

"There is a new form of behaviour police around town," he growls, "determined to make sure everyone relaxes enough. Conducting business is becoming increasingly difficult as ... perpetual holidays become a right ... It is time to say stop - we do not need or deserve so much holiday - it is unhealthy and damaging to our country."

That's more like it! That's the old Johnson tone we know and loathe, imbibed no doubt from infancy over the toast and marmalade.

I have a modest proposal to make. "Johnson's come full circle," someone remarked of Paul recently, pointing out that he is back to the Labourist position of his youth. It is high time for him to follow this through and switch over to Ian Hargreaves's New Statesman. The space he leaves on The Spectator will be amply filled by his curmudgeonly son.

Do not hold your breath: Luke may find it a little complicated to extract himself from Sunday Business. One reason is that, as well as writing the column, he is also in effect the paper's owner: last autumn he sank pounds 250,000 into the ailing paper, thus keeping it afloat, and is now bricked into the place, until and unless it tumbles about his ears.

The paper's precarious situation - target sales at launch were 170,000, but today the circulation is believed to be between 50,000 and 70,000 - may help to explain Luke's enthusiasm for abolishing holidays, and was certainly behind his proposal, put to the staff recently, for a voluntary 10 per cent pay cut. Whether Luke's own word rate is to be similarly slashed is not clear.

Fleet Street is lightly dusted with people called Johnson, but only a handful are from the original Pauline stem. Paul's eldest son, Daniel, is prominent at The Times.Described by former colleagues as shy, nervous and somewhat unworldly, he moved from being the paper's Bonn correspondent to literary editor and now runs the op-ed pages. He is also at work on a thoroughly Johnsonian project, a History of German Thought.

Meanwhile, Sophie, Paul's only daughter (he calls her "the apple of my eye"), is about to strike from a different angle. After spells at The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph, she moved to the drama department of LWT; she is now one of the "storyliners" on Channel 5's soon-to-be- launched soap, Family Affairs.

Devised by Corinne Hollingworth, ex-producer of Casualty and EastEnders, Family Affairs is about a family steadily moving up the social scale: grandad's a miner, son's a builder, grandchildren include a trainee lawyer and a music business whizkid. What Sophie will be able to contribute is anyone's guess: the Johnsons have always fancied themselves as grand, even back in their first Labourist incarnation: in 1965, when The Sunday Times Magazine rang to arrange an interview, Paul Johnson said that the writer could come to lunch but the snapper would have to go to the local pub. (To try his mettle, the magazine sent Lord Snowdon to take the pictures.)

But if a topical political note were required as the election approaches, Sophie would certainly have her own ha'porth to contribute: there are few more striking examples of the fraying of the Tory vote than the Johnsons, where Paul has taken a running jump into Blairism, while Luke has become a mainstay of the Referendum Party

Peter Popham