Richard Ingrams: There are good men in politics but they don't get on


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The Independent Online

Just when I am beginning to panic about having nothing to read in bed, a new volume of Chris Mullin's diary A Walk-On Part lands on my desk, a prequel to the previous two books, covering the years 1994-1999.

It is interesting to read how, in 1994, Chris Mullin's major concern with his new leader, Tony Blair, was to try to persuade him that he must do something to challenge the power of Rupert Murdoch, a man who in Mullin's words is "polluting our culture". Blair appears sympathetic but as we all know he ended up giving Murdoch everything he wanted.

Mullin's career reinforces my belief that there are good men in politics but that, as happened with Chris, they don't get on. Such is the demand nowadays for conformity that men and women capable of radical thought are regarded with suspicion and denied promotion.

Interestingly, on 28 June 1994, Mullin reports a meeting with the new lobby correspondent of his local newspaper, the Sunderland Echo – one Tom Baldwin. This same Baldwin is now Ed Miliband's press adviser and it was he who only a few months ago issued an edict to Labour MPs, telling them not to pick on Rupert Murdoch when speaking about the phone-hacking scandal. "We must guard against anything which appears to be attacking a particular group out of spite," he warned. By this point Chris Mullin had given up politics. And who can blame him.

I have delighted you long enough

After a stint of six years, I'm told by the recently appointed editor of The Independent that my services are no longer required – or, as Jane Austen's Mr Bennet might have put it, "You have delighted us long enough."

I cannot complain. Now aged 74, I have been writing a weekly newspaper column since 1988, previously in The Observer. I have been especially lucky in that, unlike many of my fellow columnists, I have hardly ever been lent on by my editors or instructed what I should or should not write about. Anthony Howard, the deputy editor of The Observer, did make some half-hearted attempts to find out in advance what I was going to write about – "What's on the menu this week?" he would say. I learned later that he had tried the same question with the late, lamented Alan Watkins, who told him: "It'll be a little trot around the block, you know."

As for the readers, I have always thought they should be ignored. One of the great mistakes newspapers have made in recent years is to work on the assumption that with the help of market researchers and focus groups they can discover what their readers want. But readers don't know what they want until they get it. As Claud Cockburn once put it: "An editor has no business worrying himself sick about what the public want. He should be thinking about perfecting and producing what he wants and then making the public want it too."

How to be brought back down to earth

The worst mistake journalists can make is to think that they are important and can influence events, even topple governments.

It is good for one's sanity to have the occasional experience of meeting a reader who tells you, "I really enjoyed your column last week", but then becomes confused and embarrassed when he can't remember a word of what you wrote – only to be marginally reassured when you tell him, quite truthfully, that you can't remember a word of it either.