22 APRIL 2000, Page 25


When the political journalist is a danger to the political process


There is nothing wrong with political journalists being close to politicians; such relationships go back to the beginning of the press. The politician offers information which enables the journalist to steal a march on his rivals, and in return gets the oxygen of favourable publicity. For the journalist there may be a further boon - that of being part of the political process and being treated with respect, even flat- tered, by great men of power. So it has always been. Political journal- ists need access. Alas, some go too far, and mortgage their integrity. Perhaps the most famous example was Alfred Austin, whose leaders for the Standard were sometimes reworked by the great Tory prime minister, Lord Salisbury. Austin's eventual reward was to be given the poet laureateship by Salisbury, though he was a terrible poet. At a distance of 100 years he seems a pretty creepy fellow. Are there some Alfred Austins among us today? More than ever before political journalists are latching on to men of power. It is possible, for the reader in the know, to flick through a newspaper and identify political columnists and correspondents as Blairite or Brownite or whatever. Of sever- al possible explanations for the develop- ment of the journalist as political groupie, perhaps the most important lies with Alas- tair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary. Because he was a political journalist, Campbell knows where power in the media resides. Some politicians, ignorant of the press, believe that editors are all-powerful, and thus spend their time cultivating them. Such cultivation still goes on; a steady stream of editors wends its way to No. 10. But Campbell understands two crucial things: there is a burgeoning number of political writers and columnists; and many of these do not take their cue from their editor. Even within the same newspaper there may be a Blairite and Brownite work- ing side by side. Of the several weapons at his disposal, the most obvious is news. Campbell obvi- ously has stories aplenty, and he rewards political editors whom he believes are sym- pathetic. Among these are Philip Webster of the Times, the excellent Charles Reiss of the London Evening Standard and Ian Kirby of the News of the World. Campbell seems to be getting his talons into Kamal Ahmed, the new political editor of the Observer, who has been immediately rewarded with an interview with Tony Blair. He also has some columnists sitting at his knee, most notably, as I have written here before, my esteemed colleague Roy Campbell-Greenslade. Alastair Campbell certainly does not disdain editors; he is close to Piers Morgan, editor of the Mirror. When talking of No. 10, we should not for- get Anji Hunter, Tony Blair's Girl Friday. She has a line into the Tory press, and runs a small coven of disgruntled right-wing columnists.

Then, of course, there is Peter Mandel- son, who has less time to cultivate political journalists than he used to, while having more need of their support. Among those sympathetic to his cause are Andrew Grice, political editor of the Independent, who is certainly much more than a pure Mandel- sonian. There is also Don Macintyre, the estimable political columnist on the same newspaper, who has written a biography of Mr Mandelson. Mr Macintyre's interest in Northern Ireland has quickened and deep- ened since his subject took over that port- folio last October.

Gordon Brown is in his way even more brilliant than Mr Campbell or Mr Mandel- son, According to one member of the lobby, he 'has set out to create a cadre of sympathetic journalists'. His dismissed spin doctor Charlie Whelan is said to be still active on his behalf. He has won the heart of Richard Littlejohn, the Sun's star colum- nist. Further down the food chain there is Paul Routledge of the Mirror, Brown's biographer, who misses few opportunities to extol the Chancellor's gifts and his supe- riority over Tony Blair, Larry Elliott, the Guardian's economics editor, also burns a candle for Mr Brown. And there are Brownite foot soldiers without number, who rarely meet the great man and are run by spin doctors, but are no less loyal for that.

There is a crucial point about these alliances. In most cases they have little or nothing to do with ideology, though there are some, like Paul Routledge, who are drawn to Mr Brown because they believe that he is infinitely more principled than Mr Blair.

Of course, there are some political edi- tors who are either too curmudgeonly or too independent to be controlled by any- one: among these are Simon Walters of the Mail on Sunday, Michael White of the Guardian, David Hughes of the Daily Mail and George Jones of the Daily Tele- graph. There are also columnists who can be described as New Labour yet cannot be identified with any particular faction — Andrew Marr and Andrew Rawnsley, both of the Observer, spring to mind. Finally, there are some rather grand columnists whose natural sense of detach- ment or distance from the coalface dis- qualifies them from the charge of being in anyone's pocket. Among these are William Rees-Mogg and Simon Jenkins of the Times, and Hugo Young of the Guardian.

I do not think that 20 or 30 years ago we would have found so many journalists who had hitched themselves to one wagon. There would be some, of course, but many fewer. If nothing else, the enor- mous increase in the number of political writers means that there are so many more hearts and minds to be won. The leading politician who has friends in the press knows that he can depend upon support when he runs into trouble. There are some, such as Robin Cook or John Prescott, who have cultivated virtually no journalists — and may even have been prevented from doing so by Alastair Campbell — and therefore have no port to turn to in a storm. Look what has recently happened to the friendless Stephen Byers. So one can understand why Blair, Campbell, Mandelson and Brown have gone to such lengths to build up their cadres. There are signs that William Hague and Michael Portillo are laying similar foundations, though of course no opposition party has the pre- cious information or the appurtenances of power to command equal loyalty.

Are journalists being demeaned? Not if in their hearts they remain truly indepen- dent. Not if their only interest lies in getting the story. But the danger of being bought, and the temptations, have never been greater. Politicians are less grand than they were, and they mingle very easily with jour- nalists. For their part journalists believe that they are much more important than they once were. But actually they are mere- ly being used if, like Alfred Austin, they simply take down what their political mas- ters want them to say.