Stephen Glover: We can't expect our columnists always to predict the future
Monday 20 October 2008
Does it matter if columnists make incorrect predictions? Most people would probably say it does. I wonder. Two of my favourite columnists in the whole world are Anatole Kaletsky and William Rees-Mogg, both of which gentlemen I happen to know slightly. I devour their pieces in The Times. I am the Oxford representative of the Lord Rees-Mogg fan club, and would be honoured to undertake the same role for Mr Kaletsky should a vacancy ever arise.
But even I have to concede that both of my heroes' prophetic gifts sometimes fail them. Mean-spirited souls point out that Mr Kaletsky's crystal-ball gazing during the credit crunch has sometimes gone awry. For many months he was inclined to look on the bright side. As late as 14 July he was asserting that "since the beginning of the year conditions in the real economy have been unambiguously improving."
When at the beginning of September Alistair Darling suggested our economic circumstances might be compared with those of 60 years ago, Mr Kaletsky reproached the Chancellor for "a basic ignorance of economic facts and figures". Since then Anatole has turned gloomy, even apocalyptic, though there are still flashes of optimism.
The economy is his usual beat, but he is perfectly happy to read the runes in other areas, such as American politics. In March, he urged Democrats to choose Hillary Clinton because "Mr Obama is much more likely than Mrs Clinton to be defeated by John McCain." If Mr Obama wins, I suppose it will be possible to say that Hillary might have done so by an even bigger margin.
As for William Rees-Mogg, he once told us that Colin Powell would stand for the US presidency. For at least a decade he has been predicting another Great Depression. During that period average personal wealth has soared. The world's economy has boomed. Now that we tremble on the verge of a slump, one could say that if his timing has been a little suspect the broad sweep of his prophecy was correct.
To the complaint of carping critics that these columnists' predictions are sometimes confounded, my response is: so what if they are? Both Anatole Kaletsky and William Rees-Mogg (nicknamed "Mystic Mogg" by Private Eye) have an irrepressible urge to tell us what is going to happen. If they were careful and calculating machines, writing arid, cautious pieces for the comment pages of The Financial Times, they would not be so free with their prophecies. They would also be far less readable.
Only a fool would read a columnist to discover what is going to happen since none of us can read the future. The qualities I look for in a columnist are wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, wit and humanity – all of which Mr Kaletsky and Lord Rees-Mogg have in abundance. The columnists I dislike are those smug, humourless know-alls who are forever hinting at their easy access to the powerful. Irwin Stelzer is doubtless right about everything, but my heart always sinks a little when I see his byline.
The columnist Henry Fairlie is remembered for the brilliance of his writing, not for having wrongly predicted that Jimmy Carter would beat Ronald Reagan. In an ideal world, Mr Kaletsky and Lord Rees-Mogg would perhaps curb their passion for forecasting, but they will remain my heroes even if they don't. My prediction is they won't.
Is ‘no comment’ the answer for BBC reporters?
Writing last week about the enormous power the BBC accords to Robert Peston, I mentioned his brilliance as a reporter and an analyst/commentator.
An interesting question is whether BBC reporters should be commenting at all. Thirty years ago they gave you the news. Now they give you the news, and tell you what it means. Sometimes they don't even bother to give you the news.
Can one remain objective as a reporter if one wears the hat of a commentator?
One's credibility is likely to be threatened. Nowhere is the tension between reporting and commentary more fraught than in the blogs written by some BBC reporters.
Last week Mr Peston's blog suggested, perhaps a little crowingly, that Thatcherism is dead. Maybe it is, but should the BBC's business editor be saying so?
Mr Peston's blog is a very good read, but, like all such BBC blogs, its form chips away at the Corporation's remit to be objective and neutral.
Neil makes sure The Spectator keeps firmly to the party line
Most people very reasonably believe that The Spectator is a weekly magazine. There is increasing evidence to suggest that it is, in fact, a front for a bizarre sect that renews itself by throwing ever more outlandish parties.
Barely a week passes without some new Spectator bash. Tomorrow the magazine is having "an autumn evening party" at its offices in Westminster, in association with Hyde Yachts. Perhaps once guests have drunk their fill of champagne and are stuffed full of canapés, they will sail upriver with a happy Andrew Neil, the magazine's chief executive, at the tiller.
On 17 November, The Spectator has what it describes as "a prestigious black tie dinner" in the Royal Hospital Gardens, for which guests are required to pay a mere £149 each. ("Prestigious" is a word that until recently would have been banned from the magazine.) You can meet "glittering contributors", some of whom, such as the BBC's Emily Maitlis, appear to have rather little to do with The Spectator. Its editor, Matthew D'Ancona, and Mr Neil will be the hosts of what might be characterised by over-literal folk as a "cash for access" dinner.
Perhaps the most sought-after invitation is to a party at Brown's Hotel in London on 2 December, called "Politics meets Style", which celebrates the "combined 200th anniversary" of The Spectator and GQ magazine. It turns out that The Spectator is 180 years old, and GQ 20. Why they should celebrate an anniversary together is mysterious enough, but if you are addicted to throwing parties I suppose any excuse will do.
The Sir Toby Belch determined to transform The Spectator from a magazine into a party organisation is Andrew Neil. In 180 years, no man has done so much in so short a time to change the culture of the magazine.
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