My old friend and colleague Boris Johnson has a deeply held belief which I am sure he will not mind my sharing. Boris thinks that newspapers have no right to write about the private lives of politicians. If he held this view before the Sunday Mirror revealed his affair with Petronella Wyatt, it has subsequently been engraved on his heart.
Cynics might say that MPs like Boris have an interest in keeping their fandangos out of the public prints. Wives and partners have a habit of reading newspapers. In fact, Boris employs another argument. He says that if the tabloids go on snooping into politicians' lives, the best and the brightest will be deterred from entering the profession. All one can say in response is that the vigilance of the tabloids has not yet put off Boris and a host of other talented would-be politicians from throwing their hats into the ring.
Last week journalists at Paris Match threatened to strike for the first time in the magazine's 57-year history after their editor had been removed for upsetting a government minister. Alain Genestar had infuriated the interior minister and presidential hopeful, Nicholas Sarkozy, by publishing photographs of his wife, Cécilia, and her lover in New York. Sarkozy complained to his close friend, Arnaud Lagardère, who is head of Hachette Filipacchi Médias, which owns Paris Match.
Boris, I am certain, would not approve of politicians getting editors sacked, but he would not support Genestar's decision to run the photograph of Cécilia Sarkozy and her lover. Nor would the majority of French journalists and politicians. Traditionally the French press practices the reticence Boris would like to see here. Newspapers ignored the sexual adventures of President François Mitterrand, and a book published shortly before his death revealing that he had had a mistress was widely condemned by the great and the good. Paris Match, as a somewhat racy picture-led magazine, is less bound by these conventions.
Some readers may be tempted to side with Boris and the French Establishment. I am entirely on Genestar's side. Sarkozy had presented his marriage to Cécilia as blissfully happy. Their union was one weapon in his campaign to be elected President. In fact, Cécilia was enjoying a bit on the side, and she and her husband were not the golden couple they had been cracked up to be. Paris Match was drawing attention to a little piece of fraudulence rather than making any moral judgement about Sarkozy and his wife.
Whenever a married politician is found by the tabloids to be having an affair, political leaders and some respectable newspapers intone that the matter is entirely private. It was said when the News of the World revealed that Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat MP, had a weakness for rent boys, and it was said again when the Daily Mirror published photographs of John Prescott whirling around his secretary, Tracey Temple, as though he were a lumberjack. In fact, both episodes revealed a lot about these two men. Was it right or decent or even lawful for Prescott to take advantage of a junior employee?
Some affairs - Boris's, for example - may tell us little or nothing about a politician's fitness to govern us. But at least we know. We are able to make a judgement. The French way is not to let people know. Alain Genestar did - and he has been sacked.
* The other day The Times asked in its front page 'puff box' beneath its masthead: 'What is the meaning of life? - Answer Inside, times 2.' Of course, no definitive, or even half satisfactory, answer was forthcoming. This tease reminds me of a story my colleague, Peter McKay, tells. He swears that one Friday some time in the 1960s he saw a newspaper van carrying the following advertisement: "Is there life after death? Find out in Monday's Evening Standard".
Barclays should look to Neil as new editor
John Bryant has always been something of a hero of mine. He very nearly became the features editor of this newspaper before its launch nearly 20 years ago, but at the last moment elected to join The Times. After that I did not see him again until a few years ago when he popped up at The Daily Mail, where I happen to write a column.
Just as John was about to take retirement last autumn from his essentially clerical job, which he had fulfilled with great distinction, Aidan Barclay appointed him editor-in-chief of the Telegraph Group. Then he became acting editor of The Daily Telegraph after Martin Newland had resigned in protest. Pleased though his friends were, it was generally assumed that he was merely holding the fort until help arrived.
Seven months later, matters are not so clear. John evidently likes the job, but at the same time there are at least 50 people at The Daily Telegraph who think they could do it better. One of these is the deputy editor, Will Lewis, who has been put in charge of the paper's move from Canary Wharf to Victoria. Despite his precocious talent, Mr Lewis has not yet been installed in the editorial chair, and there must be some doubt as to whether he ever will be.
John, of course, is only too happy to stay on, but neither he nor Aidan Barclay nor the Barclay twins themselves in their Channel Island fortress can really believe that this is a long-term arrangement. As they all scratch their heads thinking of a replacement, I should like to suggest that the obvious candidate, if only he can be persuaded to serve, is already sitting in their midst.
Andrew Neil was a successful editor of The Sunday Times from 1983 until 1994. He is now chief executive of the Barclay-owned Spectator and Sunday Business, his empire having been cruelly shorn by the recent sale of The Scotsman. The Spectator is too small to warrant a full-time chief executive, and in any case already employs as its publisher Kimberly Fortier, David Blunkett's former mistress. The struggling Sunday Business is also small, and may be closed down at any moment. Andrew is a bit like a colonial governor with feathers sprouting out of his hat and a Rolls-Royce, whose territory has sadly diminished to a few square miles.
And yet - and this is a serious point - he would make an ideal editor of The Daily Telegraph: authoritative, politically sophisticated, and experienced. True, there is a slight problem in that there is little love lost between Andrew and his fellow Glaswegian, Murdoch MacLennan, aka Lord McGifty, who is chief executive of the Telegraph Group, but I have no doubt that this could be resolved. Probably Andrew would have to be styled editor-in-chief and publisher in order to feel suitably important, and obviously huge sums of money would have to be thrown in his direction.
But why not? He is trusted by the Barclays. He has the stature. He knows where all the levers and pulleys are to be found on a national newspaper. And, as I have said, he is underemployed in his present role at The Spectator, and therefore tempted to meddle in editorial matters. He just needs to be convinced that running The Daily Telegraph is a towering challenge for which history and fate have prepared him. I truly believe he is the best man for the job.Reuse content