Stephen Glover: Journalists and power don't mix
Media Studies: ministers are forever trying to seduce editors and columnists through various forms of flattery
Monday 21 June 2010
Not many people seem to have noticed that two out of the five members of the newly created Banking Commission hail from the Financial Times. Martin Taylor edited the FT's Lex column before becoming a successful businessman. Martin Wolf writes an economics column for the paper, and has been garlanded with prizes and awards.
As he gave up journalism long ago, no one could sensibly complain about Mr Taylor's appointment. I am much less sure about Mr Wolf's. One of his favourite topics as a columnist has been the restructuring of the banks – the remit of the Banking Commission. Some might say how good to have someone on board who knows what he is talking about. My fear is that his FT column may lose its independence and authority when he writes on the subject about which the Commission is producing its recommendations.
Towering genius though he undoubtedly is, may I suggest that Mr Wolf erred in accepting this job? Many people use journalism as a springboard for getting into politics. In the present Cabinet there are Michael Gove and Chris Huhne. The Financial Times alone boasted two alumni in the last Cabinet – Ed Balls and Andrew Adonis. Equally, there are people such as the late Lord Deedes who give up politics for more successful careers in journalism. All this seems to me fine. It is the practising journalist who must beware of the blandishments of the political establishment.
Ministers do not need the services of journalists, surrounded as they are by brainy civil servants, and able to call on the services of other "experts" such as bankers and businessmen, who are not obviously compromised if they accept government jobs. But ministers nonetheless are forever trying to seduce and suborn editors and columnists through various forms of flattery.
Tony Blair rewarded Peter Stothard, Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins with knighthoods, though none of them was as agreeable to their benefactor after receiving their gongs as they had been before. Mr Wolf himself has already pocketed a CBE. And who can doubt that when Gordon Brown appointed Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, to the chairmanship of a commission reviewing the 30-year limit on releasing government documents, he was hoping for softer treatment from the Mail? In that case he was disappointed because the paper increased its vitriol.
The best advice I received as a young journalist came from Alexander Chancellor, then editor of The Spectator, who told me I would always be "on the wrong side of the barricades". A little melodramatic, perhaps, but essentially true. Yet even the best journalists sometimes yearn to belong. Stewart Steven was a fearless and independent editor whom I admired almost above all others. As editor of the London Evening Standard he was one of the few journalists to support John Major, and so was granted unlimited access to No 10, yet he did not receive a single mention in the former prime minister's autobiography. Doesn't that say it all?
A telling silence over Murdoch and BSkyB
Rupert Murdoch was acceptable to some on the Left as long he supported New Labour, but when he switched back to the Tories last autumn he became obnoxious again. The news that he hopes to acquire the whole of BSkyB might therefore have been expected to cause a hoo-hah. So far I have been waiting in vain for fulminations from the likes of Polly Toynbee.
Why the silence? Maybe they realise that Mr Murdoch already calls the shots at Sky with his controlling shareholding of some 40 per cent. Owning the whole shebang would mean that he would rake in all the company's burgeoning profits but it would probably not change the nature of Sky's programming.
Perhaps, though, there is another explanation. Polly and her friends probably think that BSkyB is the name of some constellation of stars far away in the galaxy. As they don't watch any of its channels, with the occasional possible exception of Sky News, they can't get very worked up about it. By contrast, though they do not read The Sun they are at least dimly aware that many people do.
One or two people have wildly suggested that Mr Murdoch should give up The Times as a quid pro quo for owning all of Sky. As the paper is losing some £80m a year this might not be the biggest sacrifice in the world. But I doubt there would be any need to ask prospective buyers to form an orderly queue around the block.
Is the Telegraph going soft on Ireland?
The Times, Guardian, Independent and Mail all "splashed" with Lord Saville's Bloody Sunday report last Wednesday, but not The Daily Telegraph, traditionally the most pro-Unionist and most viscerally anti-IRA of the papers.
It relegated the story to a secondary slot on the front page, preferring a slightly arcane splash about the Bank of England capping mortgages. The paper devoted a lot of inside space to the report, but there were no angry columns about it (though Simon Heffer, something of an authority on Northern Ireland, was on duty) and the leader was restrained. By contrast, the Mail ran a furious column by Max Hastings, largely critical of Lord Saville, as well as an astringent leader.
Does this mark a shift in the Telegraph's thinking? One might have expected that on Saturday Charles Moore – as the paper's editor he opposed the Good Friday Agreement – would touch on the subject in his Saturday column but he wrote about the euro instead. (Mr Heffer did, however, write his lead item about the Saville report in his Saturday column.) One tentative suggestion is that, as a Roman Catholic with strong Irish connections, Tony Gallagher, the paper's editor, is less passionately Unionist than his predecessors.
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