My Mentor: Matthew Parris on Charles Wilson

'He instilled in me the understanding that journalism is a trade, not a work of genius'

Monday 15 November 2004 01:00
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The man I owe it all to is Charlie Wilson, who was editor of The Times from 1985 to 1990. The story begins in 1988: I had been presenting a programme called Weekend World on LWT, but the programme was axed. I was 39 and without any prospect of an income.

Charlie Wilson phoned me out of the blue and asked if I would write the paper's parliamentary sketch (Craig Brown had been doing it for a year and he'd had enough). I should have been flattered, but wasn't sure I'd be any good. I accepted but refused a contract.

"Start by going to the Lib-Dem conference and send me some sketches," he said. So off I went, but nothing interesting was happening so I didn't bother filing anything. On the third day I got a call from Charlie, demanding to know where the sketch was. I explained how dull it was - but he responded: "Never mind whether anything's happened, I want 585 words". From that day on I realised my job was pretty clear: 585 words, on time.

Before I entered journalism I thought column-writing would lie in flashes of inspiration. Charlie, foremost among others, instilled in me the understanding that journalism is a trade, not an art or a work of genius. Inspiration matters, but in the end it is filling the space with an artefact, and doing so promptly. I learnt from Charlie that senior colleagues appreciate reliability. I grew to understand that this is at least as important as the quality of the words themselves.

He took me to lunch once a year - we didn't have a lot of conversation, mostly small talk. He wasn't personally that fired up - amiable, gruff, direct and extremely unpretentious. He left me completely alone, showed no interest in me after that first lesson, but carried on paying me. He never interfered, almost never congratulated me and never offered any criticism. But he did pay me regularly and never pulled a sketch. What I owe to Charlie was the opportunity to fill a set number of column inches a day.

Without his offer of the job at The Times I don't know what I'd have done. I see the ranks of former Conservative MPs and wonder. As someone who had failed as an MP and as a broadcaster, my days after Parliament could have been a pretty bleak time.

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