You'll never believe this...
Extortion, bribery and corruption? The scandal at the 'New York Post' makes our home-grown newspaper diarists look whiter than white
Sunday 23 April 2006
Those who regard gossip columnists as the pond-life of journalism will feel vindicated by the scandal at the New York Post. One regular reporter for the paper's Page 6 column, Jared Paul Stern, is alleged to have tried to extort $220,000 from a Californian supermarket billionaire in return for favourable coverage, while others stand accused of improperly accepting gifts and junkets. A federal investigation is under way.
While one may not want to go quite as far as Humbert Wolfe - "You cannot hope to bribe or twist, Thank God! The British journalist" - this is an occasion when social diarists on this side of the Atlantic can allow themselves to feel a little superior. It is unthinkable that such serious allegations could be made against Fleet Street gossip columnists. They may, on occasion, be venal, drunken, lazy or inaccurate; but not crooked.
If an accusation could be fairly levelled against our diary columnists, it is that, far from colluding with their subjects, they take an unhealthy delight in causing them discomfort. Before Boris Johnson's affair with Petronella Wyatt became public knowledge, the Tory MP was driven to distraction by the Daily Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle column, which made regular references to "private editorial discussions" between the two. Johnson pleaded with Peter McKay, the column's editor, to desist, but the allusions continued.
Neither could all the champagne and hospitality at his disposal help Dai Llewellyn when one diary editor took against him a few years ago. Llewellyn was the front man for the Dorchester Club, a swish venue on Park Lane. The then editor of the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary, however, having conceived a violent dislike of the blameless Llewellyn, insisted the club could not be mentioned without its name being prefixed by the word "unfashionable". By way of variation, it was sometimes referred to as "the increasingly unfashionable Dorchester Club". I remember running into Llewellyn at the time. "Why?" he asked, despairingly, "why?"
This is not to say, of course, that some low level corruption does not go on. One London PR man has ensured positive coverage of his clients in nearly every diary through a well-worked strategy. First he gives the diarist membership of an expensive private health club, then he takes him out to lunch or dinner at one of the restaurants on his books; all the while insisting that there's "no quid pro quo". They're just "mates". Later he calls with what he deprecatingly insists is "not a story". Indeed it isn't. It is probably a shameless puff. But by this time, the diarist is so grateful that he thinks, "I must do something for X", and an obliging paragraph duly appears in his column.
Diaries are all about contacts, and no diary editor is going to stitch up friends who are good sources of information. The reader, it is true, is thereby deprived of unflattering news of these friends, but that is the price of doing business. Thus Nigel Dempster would write in glowing terms about Princess Margaret, and Ross Benson would comment sympathetically on George Best's troubles.
The problem for the diarist comes when writing about the editor's friends. It is not always obvious who these people are, but they must be written about respectfully. At one paper I wrote a rather rude piece about a New York publisher, only to be called in by the editor. "He's a friend of mine," he said. The item was rewritten, and the publisher described as a hero among men.
During Max Hastings' editorship of the Evening Standard, the situation was much more of a headache for the staff of Londoner's Diary. So sensitive was Hastings to references to his friends, and such was his wrath if any one of them was inadvertently slighted, that a list was drawn up. In the end, we decided, it was simplest to avoid writing about them at all. But this also applied to those Hastings disliked.
One morning his attention was drawn to a kindly item about Antonia de Sancha, who had embarked on a romance with a raffish scribe known for his lounge singing. "I know he's a friend of yours," Hastings said to Sebastian Shakespeare, the diary editor, "but I think he's the scum of the earth". (The scribe in question was none other than The Independent on Sunday's own incomparable diarist, Christopher Silvester, whose fearless investigations into Hastings' finances in the pages of Private Eye had, so Hastings told a colleague, increased the cost of his divorce.) The story was pulled from the later editions, and a second list, of Max's enemies, was drawn up.
So yes, favours are done, and a little back-scratching goes on. But the hand of Inspector Knacker has yet to be felt on the British diary editor's collar. There is a certain honour, even among gossip columnists.
Pandora, 'The Independent' Voted best-dressed journalist by Press Gazette, Adams is of the huntin', shootin', fishin' school. Many of his best stories stem from days in waders with right-wing MPs. He's also popular with PR girls in London's party scene. His big scoop was Labour's 'anti-Semitic' flying pigs poster.
Pendennis, 'The Observer' The new kid on the diary scene, he arrived for the paper's relaunch in January. So far, he has revealed Charles Clarke's fight in Norwich Cathedral and Gordon Brown's book of speeches. He was first to break the story of David Cameron's 'green' expedition to the Norwegian ice floes.
Spy 'The Daily Telegraph' The daughter of former Tory minister George Walden, Celia brought glamour to the Telegraph social diary when she arrived last year, but some readers wrote to complain that she was showing too much flesh in her alluring byline photo. Celia has specialised in celebrity chefs, and has been seen partying with Jean-Christophe Novelli and Tom Aikens. Notable stories were Labour MP Shaun Woodward buying a £6m home in the Hamptons, and Wayne Rooney's girlfriend, Coleen, appearing on the cover of Vogue magazine.
Londoner's Diary, 'Evening Standard' Shakespeare is Fleet Street's longest-standing diary editor. Described by Alan Clark in his diaries as a "tricky little prick", Shakespeare and his public school minions fire off more than a dozen stories a day. His best contacts are in publishing. The diplomat's son is also Tatler books editor. Top stories include Prince William accidentally shooting an ibis in Africa and Zac Goldsmith's denouncing of sandwiches as unecological.
Ephraim Hardcastle, 'The Daily Mail' To borrow one of his own favourite words, McKay, left, is the 'boulevardier' of Fleet Street. A diary veteran, he now pens the waspish and unmissable column in the Daily Mail - with a succession of glamorous assistants. More a long-luncher than a party-goer,McKay has lots of senior political and media contacts who provide the rumour and suggestiveness that pepper his column. The exuberant Scot, a genius of innuendo, claims there is no story so libellous that a form of words can't be found to smuggle it past the lawyers. His former target, Petronella Wyatt, now works for him.
Mandrake, 'The Sunday Telegraph' An old Millfield boy, Tim has been described as the Noël Coward of the diary world. John Mortimer's love-child with Wendy Craig was his finest scoop and most memorable was the story about General Sir Mike Jackson having surgery which removed the bags from under his eyes. He is rarely seen out but is well-connected with poor relations of the rich and famous.He is not afraid to take a gamble with royal stories, though they occasionally backfire.,
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