Profile Dominic Lawson: Language, truth and Dominic

Is the editor of the 'Sunday Telegraph' a spy? Peregrine Worsthorne is sorry to say that he is not
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The Independent Online
STORIES THAT we particularly want to be true almost always turn out to be false, and I am quite certain that this will prove to be the case about Dominic Lawson being an agent of MI6. If only he had been, what fun all his famous victims (such as Lord Denning, the great nonagenarian judge, or Lord Charteris, the great octogenarian courtier, or the family of his most notable victim, now deceased, Nicholas Ridley) would have been able to have metaphorically dancing on his grave. No such luck. In real life it is always the lovable figures who suddenly get laid low, never the unlovable ones, such as Dominic Lawson, on whom we would so much prefer the fateful blow to fall.

So let me start by stating categorically that the story about the 42-year-old editor of the Sunday Telegraph being an agent of MI6 is a non-starter, if only because he is too devoted an agent of his family to have time left to serve any less well-deserving cause. Not that this means that he never had any journalistic dealings with the security services: most of us did, and rightly so, during the Cold War. Mine tended to be with the CIA, and only occasionally with the KGB - all such dealings in my view being completely legitimate and even patriotic in the grim circumstances of the period. In these journalistic security dealings God, quite as much as the Devil, is in the detail, and therefore no one who is not wholly in the particular picture is in a position to judge - particularly those, like myself, whose own cupboards contain at least one or two mini-skeletons.

In short, ignore all that MI6 malarkey about Dominic, which is the least interesting aspect of this immensely unlovable, if also immensely talented, fellow, with whom, as it happens, I have not been on speaking terms since, three years ago, unceremoniously and without a word of regret, he sacked me from the Sunday Telegraph, where, as one of its founding fathers, I had worked for more than 30 years. So, yes, I do bear him a grudge, in common, I fear, with many other journalists. Hence the eagerness with which last week's smear was seized upon by the media, in revealing contrast with the easy ride the media gave to the affable Richard Gott, the Guardian's journalist, when he was exposed in late 1994 as having KGB contacts by the Spectator, then, of course, edited by Dominic Lawson. To say the knives were out for Dominic last week would be an understatement. Not only were they out, but sharpened, poisoned and pointed as well.

Why so? What is wrong with the poor man? I have long pondered this question, still smarting from the scurvy treatment I received at his hand. Our relations had begun so well. His enchanting mother, Vanessa - then still the wife of his father, Nigel - brought him to stay in Wivenhoe where my first wife and I had a small house. I shall never forget how adorably sweet Dominic and his sister Nigella looked in their little sailor's suits. Nor can I have made all that much of a bad impression on him since when his mother died, tragically young, he asked me to write the appreciation for the Spectator, where he was already a uniquely youthful deputy editor. This I was glad to do, and received from him a most charmingly grateful note of thanks - quite a collector's piece since, once he became editor of the Sunday Telegraph, charming notes of appreciation to me became rare.

The rot may have set in at Eton where something awful must have happened, since he hated the place and was taken away after only one term. Perhaps he was bullied: sweet little boys often are, though rather less at Eton than at most comparable establishments. At Westminster, where he went instead, under the publicity-crazy Dr John Rae, he seems to have fitted in rather better, and is remembered by one contemporary as being "enthusiastically bad at 2nd XI cricket" and suspiciously fond of telling all and sundry that he was a "man of honour" and/or "a man of his word".

From Christ Church, Oxford, the smartest of all the colleges, he went to the Financial Times, a move that seems to have been more a rite of passage than a difficult transition. Indeed, how could it be otherwise for a son of Nigel, who himself had trod that path only a few years earlier?

It was at about this time that our paths crossed once again, at the famous intellectual salon of the late Margot Walmesley, to which Dominic was introduced by his father and mother, then, sadly, openly at daggers drawn. Vanessa - who later went on to marry the famous philosopher Sir Freddie Ayer, author of Language, Truth and Logic - would point at Nigel across the room and whisper into any receptive ear - of which there was no shortage - "dreadful pompous little man". Dominic, on the other hand, even his lovably unconventional mother could not find pompous, since in those early days, married to a young actress - with whom he would touchingly hold hands - he was a veritable model of modesty, self-effacement and good manners. Or so Margot, at least, continued to find him, in spite of his appearances at her salon becoming notably less frequent once he had been launched by his second wife, Rosa Monckton, into the rather less intellectually taxing, if more socially exalted, circles of the Princess of Wales.

Suffice it to say that he took to journalism as to the manner born and in no time at all was sitting in the same editor's chair at the Spectator that his father had vacated to become a leading politician. Not only under his reign there did the journal's circulation rise, but it would be fair to say that he inaugurated what has become a new genre of journalism, almost altogether replacing investigative journalism. Like all discoveries of genius it was surprisingly simple and, once discovered, very easy to practise. It consisted of encouraging famous people, especially elderly famous people, to talk freely and openly, and then publishing their indiscretion. In this way the public came to know the indiscreet views about the Germans of Nicholas Ridley - then in the cabinet and a former colleague of Dominic's father - who immediately resigned; the wildly indiscreet views of the nonagenarian judge Lord Denning on capital punishment; the wildly indiscreet views of the famous octogenarian courtier Lord Charteris on the Duchess of York; and the wildly indiscreet views of the nonagenarian Queen Mother on TS Eliot and others.

About the ethical propriety of such journalistic disclosures - some critics, like myself, have described it as "the journalism of betrayal" - there was room for argument. But not at all about its popularity with the readers. Nor, in the present climate, did it in any way harm Dominic and Rosa's social ascent or, needless to say, Dominic's journalistic career; the only effect of the gusts of disapproval rising from the stuffier ends of the Establishment being to help to waft Dominic ever higher, into the editorial chair of the Sunday Telegraph, on which I myself, at a vastly older age, had once had the honour to sit.

There, too, he has sent the circulation if not actually soaring, then at least respectably increasing, thanks in part to the canny marketing strategies - subscription drives, vouchers - of a generous management. Some older readers might have been put off by his unique gift for combining tabloid values and style with up-market metropolitan sophistication, but any loss of circulation on that score has more than been made up at the younger end of the market. He has been, in short, a good editor, even if I say so myself. But only at the cost of transforming the paper into one where far too many of the staff seized upon the first opportunity to leave, finding him difficult to work with.

Lately, however, he has been making a conscious effort to be nice, which some colleagues find more painful than his nastiness. But they respect his courage, his willingness to publish and be damned. He is not scared of the high and mighty (though, paradoxically, he is a social climber, and he is childishly proud of his friendships with Harry Enfield, Ruby Wax and Elizabeth Hurley). He is also, those who have worked with him say, a control freak. He is almost impossible to please, forever changing copy and frequently his mind. Perhaps this is a sign of uncertainty. "I sense something vulnerable in him," says a former colleague. "It sounds silly but there were times when I just wanted to hug him (when I didn't want to kill him) and tell him not to worry; it would all be all right in the end."

All in all, a mysterious fellow, not at ease with himself, let alone with others; in theory, one might suppose, ideal potential recruiting ground for the security services. But not, I am sure, in practice. For Dominic is far too ambitious, far too proud and, above all, far too self- serving ever to be willing to hide his lights under the cover of a secret service. That he might outwit the secret service is all too plausible; but that it could outwit him is wishful thinking. This meteor likes to shine, deserves to shine, and the journalistic firmament would be a duller place if it was brought to earth with a bump.