Many people believe that this country has a cruel and intrusive press which has no business writing about the private lives of politicians. They cite continental countries, in particular France, where what public figures do between the sheets, or in their boudoirs, is barely written about.
The case of Charles Kennedy should make us review this piece of received wisdom. There is no political journalist or editor or columnist within 30 miles of Westminster who did not know, before Mr Kennedy's dramatic statement last Thursday, that he has been an alcoholic. Any of them (I include myself) could have put together a well-sourced article over the past year or two establishing that there was a serious problem. And yet they - we - did not.
Surely it would have been in the public interest for someone to have done so. People may not care if a party political leader is a drunk, but they probably think they have a right to know whether he is. Churchill, it will be said, drank too much, but he was not an alcoholic. By his own admission, Mr Kennedy is. Alcoholics fail in their duties - as the Lib Dem leader evidently has on numerous occasions - and they are hardly to be relied upon at moments of crisis. At the last election Mr Kennedy put himself forward as a prospective Prime Minster of Great Britain. We may say that the Lib Dems did not have an earthly chance of winning, but they are a serious party which got 22 per cent of the vote (almost two-thirds of what New Labour achieved) and won 62 seats. Mr Kennedy is nearer the nuclear button than most of us.
There has been a cover-up in which most political journalists have cheerfully colluded. Why? We all have our theories. My feeling is that Mr Kennedy has been spared partly because he seems so decent. If he were an obvious rotter, he would have been more liable to exposure. Many journalists were probably also inclined to go soft on him because he is in charge of a minority party. I doubt that newspapers would have been so gentle with a Tory or a Labour leader. It may have suited the right-wing press not to make an issue of Mr Kennedy's frailties. A really focused Lib Dem leader would have spelled more trouble for the Tories in southern England, and so some newspapers were only too happy for him to remain at the helm.
Whatever the explanation, this indulgence on the part of a free press in a modern democracy is undesirable. Oddly, given the reputation of the British press, television journalists have been rather more robust than their newspaper counterparts. Mr Kennedy has been put on the spot several times by interviewers, and on each occasion he has dissembled. Most famously, he was questioned, admittedly pretty aggressively, by Jeremy Paxman on BBC2's Newsnight in July 2002. That interview created a terrific hullabaloo, provoking complaints from many MPs, including the Leader of the House, the late Robin Cook, and Mr Paxman apologised. In the end it was an impending item on ITV News last Thursday - not in The Sun or the News of the World or the Daily Mail - that made Mr Kennedy come clean.
As a citizen I want to know whether a political leader is an alcoholic or has taken drugs or is a serial adulterer. I would like to be told if he or she has dodgy friends. In almost every respect, our habit of relative openness is preferable to the French custom of deference and secrecy. The test should not necessarily be whether or not a politician has broken the law. After all, Mr Kennedy has not done that, and yet it is in the public interest for his alcoholism to be exposed for the reasons I have mentioned.
Of course politicians have a right to a private life but they do not have a right to keep to themselves momentous secrets of character and conduct that might influence the judgement of voters. Most politicians would prefer us not to know anything about them apart from their good points. They are usually among the keenest defenders of a privacy law. But their interests in this regard are not the same as ours. This is a distinction which, in the case of Mr Kennedy, the press forgot.
What my sacking says about 'The Spectator'
After the resignation of Boris Johnson as editor of The Spectator, many people are asking who his successor will be. I think I can supply the answer. It will be the crinkly haired Andrew Neil. That, at any rate, is what he would like.
Mr Neil is chief executive of The Spectator. Until recently, he was also publisher of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday, but these titles are being sold by his proprietors, the Barclay brothers. So he now presides over a dwindling mini-empire comprising only The Spectator, Apollo (an arts magazine in which Mr Neil does not have very much interest) and the Business, the lively but little-read Sunday newspaper.
Even if he did not have so much time on his hands, Mr Neil would be drawn towards The Spectator. Editing is what he can do. By contrast, his track record as a publisher inspires little confidence. Of course, he will not literally edit the magazine (he sees himself as being too grand for that) and will find some obliging soul who can be relied on to do his bidding. William Sitwell, editor of Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine, is one name among several that have been mentioned.
I can provide a little personal proof that Mr Neil is already calling the editorial shots. Just over a couple of months ago Boris Johnson re-engaged me as a monthly columnist. (I had previously been a weekly columnist on the magazine, and we came to blows earlier in the year when Boris censored me). After only two columns I have been sacked by Mr Neil. Is this a record? The reason he gives via an underling is that my pieces about the Daily Telegraph (The Spectator's sister publication) in this newspaper have caused grave offence to him and the Barclay brothers. He adds that Boris should not have taken me on again without consulting him.
Oh well. My little drama is very small beer. But I do worry for The Spectator for which, until my dust-up with Boris, I had written for nine years. It would be difficult to think of someone more at odds with everything The Spectator stands for than Mr Neil. It is Tory; he is a neocon. It is English, subtle and understated; he is Scottish, unsubtle and abrasive. I am sure he loathes The Spectator in his heart; he has fought battles to do with culture and class with its former editor, Charles Moore, as well as with Peregrine Worsthorne, a frequent contributor. Not all the fault was on Mr Neil's side. But he is not a Spectator person.
Why, then, should he be allowed to run it? His colleague and fellow Scot, Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Group, is reportedly asking himself the same question. My articles about the Daily Telegraph which evidently caused such offence were partly about Mr MacLennan, but I am prepared, at least for these purposes, to concede that he is a genius. He wonders why the next editor of The Spectator might not be a substantial figure such as Matthew D'Ancona, deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph, rather than an acolyte who will dance to Mr Neil's tunes. Stuart Reid, the magazine's deputy editor, or Peter Oborne, its political editor, would also be good. The Spectator is a treasured British institution, and it seems that only Murdoch MacLennan, and behind him the Barclays, can now save it.