It is quite difficult to find anyone to say a good word for Sir Christopher Meyer, whose recently published memoirs have caused such a kerfuffle. John Prescott and a group of Labour MPs have called for his resignation as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission on the grounds that DC Confidential breaches confidences with ministers. But there is a much larger, if less vocal, group of people - former diplomats, editors, journalists, senior civil servants - who also think that his position is untenable.
Their argument can be simply stated. Government will scarcely be possible if senior civil servants rush into print soon after retiring, with criticisms of serving ministers based on their own privileged access. Sir Christopher has, according to this point of view, flouted a convention that was once universally observed. Moreover, his indiscretions in respect of his job as British ambassador to Washington may suggest that he will be similarly indiscreet in his present sensitive position as chairman of the PCC.
Both The Independent and The Guardian have argued that Sir Christopher has compromised the institution over which he presides. Since The Guardian (along with the Daily Mail) has serialized DC Confidential, the paper might be accused of having its cake and eating it.
The arguments against Sir Christopher are persuasive. But there are points on the other side of the ledger that, for me, tilt things in his favour. Journalists should surely welcome the publication of details and apercus about our rulers as long as they do not damage national security. Sir Christopher paints a convincing portrait of a Tony Blair so awestruck by the power of President George W Bush that he underestimated the leverage he had over him. He depicts Jack Straw as equally starstruck in his dealings with his US counterpart, Colin Powell. The reality of American power, and the way in which our present leaders respond to it, are surely matters of enormous public interest. As a journalist, I find it difficult to understand why other journalists should wish to suppress such information. By the way, I should mention that I have only met the former ambassador to Washington on one occasion, when we spoke at a party for about five minutes.
I accept that there have to be rules and conventions regarding the publication of books by recently retired civil servants. Yet it seems unfair to pick on Sir Christopher. For one thing, he did submit his book to the Cabinet Office, which raised no objections. For another, DC Confidential is only the latest among many memoirs by recently retired ministers and pubic officials. Clare Short, Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam, Stella Rimington (the ex-head of MI5), Lord Stevens (former Metropolitan Police Commissioner) and Sir Peter de la Billière (who commanded the Army during the first Gulf War) all rushed into print with books that had their fair share of indiscretions.
Sir Christopher has been singled out for opprobrium because his memoirs contain such a devastating critique of some Government ministers. It is no accident that it should be Jack Straw and John Prescott ('a mastiff with his hackles up') who have led the charge against Sir Christopher, since they emerge in his book as the most absurd and inadequate of ministers.
It is true that, unlike most of the other former ministers and civil servants whom I have mentioned, Sir Christopher remains in public life, and the argument that he may have compromised the Press Complaints Commission is difficult to rebut. But rather than ringing their hands, editors and journalists should attack a far greater scandal. Who is John Prescott to demand Sir Christopher's resignation from a body that, in most people's estimation, performs a creditable task of self-regulation? It is an unwarranted act of interference, the more unforgivable because Mr Prescott has never done anything to strengthen the far less effective self-regulation practised by ministers and MPs.
There is also something sinister about Mr Prescott's attack, and the response of a hard core of Labour MPs who have tabled a Commons motion. A number of Labour MPs want a government-controlled statutory body overseeing a press that would be a lot less free than it is now.
If Sir Christopher Meyer is made to resign, that would give comfort to the opponents of an independent Press Complaints Commission and the supporters of government supervision of the media. A minor embarrassment might have been removed, but at the cost of a major concession to the enemies of a free press. Sir Christopher has given an irrevocable public undertaking that he will never write about his tenure at the PCC, and that should be enough. Throwing him now to the wolves would do far more harm to the PCC than letting him get on with his job.
Why are they all so keen to sign up with Julia?
The redoubtable Julia Hobsbawm, right, who unbelievably is a Professor of PR, has set up a new company called Editorial Intelligence "where PR meets journalism". She is creating a database that will contain portraits of some 1,000 members of the "commentariat", listing their likes and dislikes, the days on which their pieces appear, and so forth. Companies which subscribe to the database will know about the journalists who write about them, or those who might do so.
A very commercial idea and further proof of Hobsbawm's prowess as a PR practitioner. But I find it difficult to understand why a number of distinguished journalists should have lent their good names to her enterprise by agreeing to serve on her advisory board. They include Charlie Burgess (of this parish), The Sunday Telegraph's Matthew D'Ancona and Robert Peston, and Kim Fletcher of The Guardian. One can quite see why Hobsbawm should want these journalists on her letterhead, but what's in it for them?
Greats of journalism who should be in the Hall of Fame
The much-improved Press Gazette, the journalists' magazine recently acquired by Matthew Freud and Piers Morgan, is celebrating its 40th anniversary. To mark the occasion it has created a so-called "Hall of Fame" of the 40 most influential journalists in the period since its first issue. This is a skillful act of self-promotion on the part of Press Gazette, which has been rehabilitating itself after its riotous newspaper awards earlier in the year. One problem with the Hall of Fame is that four of its eight judges deserved to be in it, but all were ineligible. (The judges were Harold Evans, Andreas Whittam Smith, Paul Dacre, Charles Wilson, Max Hastings, Peter Stothard, Alan Rusbridger and Kelvin MacKenzie). There are also some surprising omissions.
Surely a place should have been found for the columnist Peregrine Worsthorne, a master of paradox and originality. Why no Richard Ingrams or Bron Waugh? Did Stewart Steven, the editor who made the Mail on Sunday, not have a case? Where was Nicholas Garland, the cartoonist? Why no Harold Hobson, the theatre critic, or Alan Watkins, the political columnist? As the chief inventor of the modern parliamentary sketch, Frank Johnson has a stronger claim than some writers who were included.
Harold Hobson apart, these people have all been friends of mine, but I don't see why that should disqualify them.Reuse content