A minor sin in the media whorehouse

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The Independent Online

There will be those who this weekend have come to the conclusion that Professor Roger Scruton is a complete and utter slut. It will be a shock because, in the past, the philosopher and author of An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture may have been thought a frizzy-haired ragbag of inappropriate attitudes, but he always seemed to have his own kind of integrity. Like Enoch Powell, in whose hunting clothes he famously rides to hounds, he was his own man.

This view has taken a knock. To the joy of sanctimonious liberals everywhere, Scruton has been revealed be on the take from the tobacco industry. A leaked e-mail has led to the disclosure that a firm called Japan Tobacco pays him £54,000 a year as a consultant. Recently, he has been asking for a further £12,000 to place pro-smoking pieces in the press.

It is all, apparently, a terrible scandal. The Financial Times, for whom Scruton has written a column about the countryside for the past three years, fired him instantly. The newspaper's editor, Andrew Gowers, acting one assumes on the premise that their readers were too feeble-minded to make up their own minds about smoking, prissily denounced his former columnist as "very foolish".

Scruton has been unapologetic. "I have been utterly open about my connections from the beginning," he said. At no point had the FT asked him to declare his interests – indeed, he regularly sent them briefings from the tobacco industry on headed notepaper from the sponsor. Significantly, the more grown-up New Statesman has had no problem in retaining the good professor as its wine correspondent.

The assumption behind the FT's position appears to be that those who express opinions in the media should be pure in heart and mind, utterly uncontaminated by any outside influence. As anyone who has done this kind of work will know, this is rarely, if ever, likely to be true.

A whole range of pressures and influences, most of them less honest and explicit than an annual bung from a tobacco firm, is brought to bear upon the press opinion-monger. He is required to be contrary and interesting. He must take into account the general stance of his employers on certain issues. Rival newspapers should be mentioned rarely and, if possible, unfavourably. Any particular bias, hang-up or enthusiasm of those who commission him must be taken carefully into consideration.

Like a proficient working tart, the columnist is eager to give pleasure to those who pay him, thereby ensuring that he will be asked to turn tricks in the future. Only occasionally does this require an out-and-out distortion of what he believes. More often it is a question of what is professionally known as "compromise": certain, acceptable views should be revealed to the full sunlight while other, less acceptable ones remain in the shadows.

Newcomers at the game become aware of the process slowly. They notice that, should they be unwilling to express a particular view, then a rival will quickly be found who will. Soon, the process of corruption becomes ingrained, and the question no longer needs to be asked. Instinctively, the professional columnist will know what is expected.

Like Fay Weldon and her Bulgari-sponsored novel, Roger Scruton has cut through the sham of objectivity by accepting money to represent views he already had but with a little bit more force and persistence than he might otherwise have done. In the media whorehouse, it is a relatively minor sin.

Another, lesser point emerges from the story. There's rather decent money to be made from opinions. Moneyed folk in suits are happy to help you earn a living, like real, grown-up employees, for the right words said in the right quarters. Politicians have known this for some time. Now, thanks to Roger Scruton, writers will have their chance too.

terblacker@aol.com

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