Richard Ingrams’s Week: Even the most hard-bitten hack can get deeply upset

Saturday 27 February 2010 01:00

They don't give many honours to journalists these days, which is probably a very good thing. For it is a sad fact that so far from being the hard-bitten, cynical old hacks that the public supposes them to be, many journalists have a pathetic craving for honours and awards despite the fact that they have been so devalued as to mean almost nothing by now.

One of the last Fleet Street editors to be given a knighthood, in 2002, was the Telegraph's Max Hastings. But not everyone was as delighted as he was by the award. In his memoirs which were serialised in the Daily Mail, Hastings described how, when he became Sir Max in 2002 his mother, the journalist Anne Scott-James, said she imagined that one of his influential friends must have "fixed it" for him.

Sir Max was deeply upset by this jibe, adding it to the long list of grievances he holds against his mother who died only last May. No amount of complimentary paragraphs praising her achievements can disguise the overpowering feelings of self-pity which he ought to have grown out of long ago.

We will never know the means by which Max Hastings became Sir Max. But given the fact that he was close friends with many leading Tory politicians, his mother's assumption that one of them "fixed" the knighthood for him is in the circumstances not unreasonable.

Many others of us will have felt the same way, while at the same time seeing the knighthood as a sign that Hastings, for all his cockiness and bravado, has always been an establishment figure. He minds so much about his mother not just for deep-seated psychological reasons but because he must know that she may possibly have been right.

Wise words from a wise man

"When you have made a lot of mistakes you're thought of as a very wise man." Tony Benn was addressing this week's Oldie Literary Lunch at Simpsons and as always was wooing them with a performance worthy of a practised showman.

Promoting his latest work, a little book called Letters to My Grandchildren, Tony Benn began by pointing out that he was brought up in a world where there were Englishmen and foreigners. But now, he says, we no longer feel like that, particularly if we live or work in London. You can experience the global village just by getting on a bus. "People form all corners of the earth are momentarily brought together in one small community."

A great many people of Benn's age – he is now 84 – would not feel happy with that kind of situation. But his enthusiasm is catching. Listening to him I find myself (almost) having positive thoughts about the internet.

Taking questions from the audience, Benn was asked whether he would favour changes to the voting system. He was, he said, opposed to compulsory voting as practised in Australia and elsewhere.

One lady said that it ought to be possible for voters to register their disapproval of all the candidates standing in their particular constituency. Spoiling the ballot paper was no answer. She suggested that underneath the names of the candidates you should be able to put a cross against a box marked "none of the above".

"You'd probably end up with none of the above winning the election," Tony Benn responded.

Too much Tiger annoys the viewers, but not the BBC

Last Friday 19 February, the BBC's 6pm TV news bulletin opened with five and a half minutes devoted to golfer Tiger Woods's maudlin and staged-managed apology for his many sexual misdemeanours. But when a wave of 200 or so viewers complained the BBC was unrepentant. Describing Tiger Woods, left, as "a colossal figure in the sporting world" the corporation's spokesman maintained that his "highly unusual apology" was a matter of worldwide importance.

This is more than just a trivial incident because nothing is more indicative of the BBC's overall decline than its failure any longer to evaluate the news. Even on Radio 4's bulletins, items are thrown together in no special order – crime, medical scares, celebrity gossip, environmental titbits – with the hope that if somebody with a sufficiently authoritative voice reads it out, nobody will notice.

Every day now you will see some new little scandal emerge about the BBC. A few days ago came the National Audit Office's report that the refurbishment of Broadcasting House in central London was four years behind schedule and £55m over budget.

The extravagant plans include a £1.6m statue by a Canadian artist, Mark Pimlott, and another piece by Spaniard Jaume Plensa costing a mere £900,000.

Why does one somehow know in advance that these works won't be any good? And why is it that the British Broadcasting Corporation paid for with British money can't commission British sculptors to knock something up for them, just as it did when Broadcasting House was put up in 1932?

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