Interviewers do more than ask the punters' questions

Trevor Phillips on journos and angels
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The Independent Online
This one is about journalists and their audiences; me and you. It is also about democracy. So let me start with an hommage to the columnists' favourite opening sentence, as immortalised by my Private Eye rival, Glenda Slag. Is it just me, or are the journalists becoming bigger than their stories?

Most reporters would recoil at the suggestion. The defenders of John Humphrys, under fire this week for bullying Harriet Harman on Today, repeat the standard mantra that interviewers merely ask the questions that the public would ask if they had the chance. This is fatuous. The public wants journalists, especially the premier division interrogators, to ask the questions that they themselves would never ask, either because they would not dare, or because they wouldn't think of them. If not, why not just fill the presenters' chairs at the Today programme, or Newsnight, by rot- ation of anyone who phones in?

The fact is that today's journalists are a different kettle of fish; they can be ranked in the same way as footballers, because interviewing is a rare skill. You can be born with the equipment - language, force of personality, a quick wit, but you have to train to be in the premier division with the Dimblebys, Paxman, Humphrys et al.

It is not only the political journalists who have been in the news. The tabloids have been full of pictures of the newest journalistic glamourpuss, Lauren Booth, who happens to be the Prime Minister's sister-in-law. More important, she has now become the latest addition to the roster at the London Evening Standard, where she is writing on lifestyle matters. In a sense she'll step into the shoes of the late Jeffrey Bernard, charting metropolitan comings and goings. She is too young to have a serious track record in debauchery, but anyone who can best the patron saint of loucheness himself, Alan Clark, must have something going for her. She clearly has some skills required by a journalist. She recently blagged Tube fare off a Big Issue seller; to be fair, she later recompensed him handsomely, but even so she must have the best part of the world's reserves of chutzpah. However, close as she is to the centre of power, Miss Booth is unlikely ever to be an essential component of our democracy.

On the other hand, there are star journos who increasingly play a role in informing the citizen of the true meaning of the public rhetoric of the politicians. The danger, of course, is that the messenger may obscure or mistranslate the message; but that is why we have a range of media with different kinds of voices. Two of the most important have been in the news themselves this week, and they could not be more different.

John Humphrys was pilloried for his now trademark interruptions of Harriet Harman on the Today programme; Richard Littlejohn, who has now flown back to The Sun, is reputedly about to trouser nearly a million smackeroos a year for his column and TV appearances. I don't know Humphrys; I do know Littlejohn well, having introduced him to television and produced his first, successful, series on terrestrial TV. Both men are successful for one reason: they make waves in public life. They force debate to take place.

You may be dismayed by Humphrys' style, but you are grateful that it unsettles politicians of all kinds. You may be appalled by Littlejohn's no-nonsense summing up of some debates - on a proposal to raise the age at which cigarettes can be bought, he observed that it meant that you could be "buggered" at 16 yet couldn't have a fag afterwards - but his ability to test the arguments of our rulers to near destruction would be welcome in the House of Commons.

Are the journos getting too big for their boots? Probably. But it is not their fault. The arcane rules of our political game now mean that every politician has to line up with the party whips and avoid raising anything which might take MPs "off message". For example, no Tory could go very far in attacking Lord Simon over his alleged conflict of interest, or quizzing the Paymaster-General too roughly about his offshore arrangements, for fear of laying his own troops to waste, since they too have probably followed exactly the same procedures over the past 20 or so years. No new Labour MP can safely scrutinise Ministers' actions without having the withering charge of disloyalty deployed. Thus scrutiny is left to the media. This is a sad state of affairs, both for the politicians and for the reporters.

For the politicians, the fact that most of the pressure on the Government to reveal itself is coming from the scribblers, give or take the odd blast from a Select Committee, is an embarrassment; what are we paying them for, if not to scrutinise the performance of the executive? For the journalists, the public's desire for interviewers constantly to scrap with their subjects leads to an unpleasant carping tone in our business; and quarrelsomeness, valuable as it may be, is not analysis. In the end, the skilful politician can always defeat his interrogator by a mixture of bluster and bonhomie.

Had Richard bothered to read my column a couple of weeks back, appealing to the Christmas decoration manufacturers to produce black angels, I imagine it would have been meat and drink to him; but thank you to all of you who sent cards with black (and nearly-black) angels. In particular, Amnesty International produced cards which satisfied even me. And for those who recognise that this is a season of something-or-other for more than one faith, my colleague Julia came up with a card showing Santa embracing an orthodox rabbi. Maybe this diversity thing will catch hold. Whatever you're marking this week, enjoy.