Stephen Glover on the Press
No fear. No favours. No Boris appeasing the powers above
Monday 14 March 2005
When I first wrote a media column some 12 years ago, there were very few of us labouring in this vineyard. Roy Greenslade had recently embarked on his highly esteemed
Guardian press column, but I do not think there were any other regular practitioners. Now, serious newspapers and even some magazines bulge with media columns and media diaries. The modern media take themselves very seriously, and since they wield a great deal of power in this country - some would say too much - this self-awareness should be welcomed. The activities of the powerful, new media class must be written about in the same way that politicians and business people are put under the microscope.
When I first wrote a media column some 12 years ago, there were very few of us labouring in this vineyard. Roy Greenslade had recently embarked on his highly esteemed Guardian press column, but I do not think there were any other regular practitioners. Now, serious newspapers and even some magazines bulge with media columns and media diaries. The modern media take themselves very seriously, and since they wield a great deal of power in this country - some would say too much - this self-awareness should be welcomed. The activities of the powerful, new media class must be written about in the same way that politicians and business people are put under the microscope.
But anyone can see there is not an exact parallel. When journalists write about politicians, they are writing about another estate. Of course, a close friendship between a reporter and a member of the Government may influence the way in which a journalist does a story. Editors are sometimes leant on by ministers. But whatever pressures are applied by politicians to journalists behind the scenes, there are at least no commercial considerations. The same cannot be said when journalists write about other journalists. If, for example, the highly esteemed Greenslade should inveigh against one or other newspaper group in his admirable column, how can we be sure that he has not been subtly and, no doubt, sub-consciously influenced by the commercial interests of the paper for which he writes?
The question came into sharp relief for me last month when I resigned from The Spectator magazine, where I had written a media column for nine years. Boris Johnson, the editor, had refused to publish an innocuous little item I had written about The Daily Telegraph, whose proprietors, Sir Frederick and Sir David Barclay, also own The Spectator. Boris apparently lives in fear of these highly secretive Barclay twins, who acquired newspaper and magazine in June. Fear turned to terror last in November, when the abrasive Andrew Neil was installed as chief executive of The Spectator. In this unhappy mood, even the most fleeting reference to The Daily Telegraph was apt to provoke a fit of the vapours in Boris. Before he spiked my little item, he took the highly unusual step of telephoning Murdoch MacLennan, the chief executive of the Telegraph Group, and reading it out to him.
Many people assume that Boris is a bumbling fellow, er-ing and um-ing his way through life, and somewhat slow to get his thoughts in order. How wrong they are. When cornered, Boris changes from a comatose, shaggy old sheepdog into a highly alert greyhound. Somewhat embarrassed by my resignation, he declared that the media columns are a corrupt form, in which columnists settle old scores. He must have forgotten how he would sometimes urge me to attack his enemies; invitations I would not take up. Once, when his friend, the journalist and would-be Tory MP Michael Gove, was touted as a possible editor of The Spectator, Boris pleaded in vain with me to write something disobliging about him. One wonders why, if he believes that media columns are so defective, he put up with mine for so long.
Boris also came up with a second line of attack - namely that I was a kind of secret agent for the Daily Mail, for which I also write a weekly column. He complained to the press that I never attacked the Mail, a paper which he loathes. All I can say in my defence is that I never praised the Mail in my Spectator column, and that, whenever I mentioned it, I always declared an interest. If Boris thought my failure to attack the Mail was such an appalling dereliction of duty, he might have mentioned this when we had lunch in November (only the second occasion on which we had done so in nearly six years), but he did not. In a long (and almost embarrassingly laudatory) letter about me sent by Boris to Aidan Barclay, the chairman of the Telegraph Group, at the end of December, he nowhere touches on the suggestion that I was an agent of the Daily Mail.
Still, when all due allowance is made for Boris's breathtaking politician's talent for dreaming up arguments that are to his advantage, does he have a point? Are media columns innately corrupt? Isn't every media columnist liable to lick the hand that feeds him? These are questions that have been vexing me for the past few weeks. I don't think it can be claimed that the form is entirely pure. But I have decided to set up my stall at The Independent, because its editor, Simon Kelner, has assured me that I can write whatever I like, with no regard for the newspaper's interests. If, for example, I should admire The Guardian's new Le Monde-type format when it emerges this autumn, I shall say so. Equally, if I should attack The Guardian, it will be because I want to, not because it may suit Kelner to have a rival criticised. All I can promise is that I will strive to write whatever I believe without fear or favour. And if the Daily Mail annoys me, I shall say so.
Diary damages convention
Piers Morgan's diaries have attracted much notice. They provide an unappealing, if somewhat predictable, portrait of the Court of Tony Blair: an overbearing and deceitful Alastair Campbell; an over-sensitive and acquisitive Cherie Blair; and a slippery Prime Minister in thrall to Rupert Murdoch, and happy to pay obeisance to red-top editors such as Morgan. Those, like myself, who are no great admirers of Mr Blair may have been cheered by Morgan's account. But happy though part of me is to see all this in the public domain, another part of me registers an objection. Morgan's many meetings with Blair over the years were private. The most recent, which he describes in great detail, was a dinner he enjoyed with the Blairs in their Downing Street flat at the end of June. We are not talking ancient history here.
It is a generally observed convention that journalists do not publish details of private meetings with ministers. Information acquired in such a way can be made use of in some indirect way, but it should not be attributed soon after the event. Morgan has abused this convention more shamelessly than any other editor or journalist in living memory. No one would complain if, like Alan Clark, he had published his diaries after the administration he wrote about had passed away, but he has published private details about people still in power. Ministers reading Morgan's diaries may wonder whether they should be so open in future.
Of course, one could say that if Tony Blair consorts so freely with red-top editors such as Morgan, he deserves what he gets.
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