26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 36


For Woodward-Bernstein, read Evans-Pritchard


It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and the destruction of President Clinton — if and when it happens should certainly result in some major press award for the Daily Telegraph's one and only Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. For more than any other Washington correspondent — American as well as everybody else he has been responsible for bringing Bill Clinton to book. He was on the job from the beginning, long before Kenneth Starr, and in spite of all attempts by the White House to frighten him off and blacken his reputation, he has never given up. One would like to think that it can only be a matter of time before the Telegraph's man is the hero, played by Robert Redford, of an award-winning Hollywood blockbuster.

Nevertheless, in all likelihood Ambrose's achievement is most unlikely to get the recognition it deserves. My guess is that he will now come in for more press brickbats, which are already beginning to fly, than bouquets, which so far have been conspicu- ously slow in arriving. Indeed I would wager a football star's transfer fee that, instead of becoming a glamorous role- model for the next generation of journalists — as did Woodward and Bernstein — he will be remembered, if at all, as an eccen- tric and slightly disreputable Welsh maver- ick whose sense of proportion left much to be desired.

The reason, I fear, is all too obvious. In the eyes of those here and in America who make or break journalistic reputations, the successful pursuit of a Democratic presi- dent ranks far lower in the scales of gal- lantry than does the successful pursuit of a Republican one. It is as simple as that. I know it will be argued that President Nixon's delinquencies, being political and public, deserved to be pursued relentlessly, while Clinton's, being private and sexual, did not. Seen from this perspective, Ambrose is made to look like a seedy voyeur or unbalanced puritan who com- pares ill with the noble patriots who did for Richard Nixon. But in truth there is no jus- tification for viewing him in that light since Whitewater, when it first aroused Ambrose's suspicion, was not primarily about sex. It was primarily about corrup- tion, intimidation, abuse of power and all sorts of even more serious crimes, with sex no more than the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, it was only because it proved difficult to nail Clinton on these other more serious crimes that Ambrose, followed subsequent- ly by Kenneth Starr, turned to sex in much the same way as the FBI turned to income- tax evasion when unable to nail Al Capone on anything else.

No, the glorification of Woodward and Bernstein and the lack of glorification, indeed denigration, of Ambrose has noth- ing to do with any difference in culpability of the two presidential targets, and every- thing to do with the way the press, on both sides of the Atlantic, is prepared to lean over backwards to give a liberal president the benefit of the doubt — at least until the bitter end — while wholly unwilling to give an anti-liberal president any comparable level of merciful indulgence. In the end, of course, even the liberal press has turned against Clinton. But whereas the journalis- tic messengers who insisted on bringing the public the incriminating news about Nixon were praised and rewarded, it is most unlikely that the messenger who has done most to bring the bad news about Clinton will go on to any comparable fame or for- tune.

I say this without prejudice, as the lawyers say. For in my view neither Wood- ward nor Bernstein nor Evans-Pritchard deserve praise or reward. Quite the oppo- site: I would rather see that type of inves- tigative journalism, at least when directed against heads of state, discouraged than encouraged, for in the long run it is almost certain that there will be more injury to the public weal than that which would have resulted from leaving the head of state uninvestigated. From the public interest point of view, better by far a crooked head of state whose sins have remained under wraps, than a disgraced and impeached one whose sins have been exposed.

If this is true of heads of state in a repub- lic, how much more so is it true of royal families, where the public weal is even more ill served by the intrusions of inves- tigative journalism. Contrary to the con- temporary view, the test of a healthy body politic is not the vigorous functioning of a system of no-holds-barred investigative journalism, but rather the vigorous func- tioning of a system of voluntary press restraint, such as existed in England, say, during the Edward VIII abdication crisis and in America during FDR's adulterous years in the White House and, even more, in the years of President Kennedy's twice- daily honking: Needless to say, this voluntary press restraint was not because of any sentimen- tal considerations for the individual heads of state but because of the crucial impor- tance of the offices they held. Who would have benefited most during the hot and cold war years from the impeachment of Presidents Roosevelt or Kennedy — Amer- ica's friends or foes? Who would have ben- efited most from the pre-war tarnishing of Britain's House of Windsor — the UK's friends or foes? The answer is all too plain, as it is in the case of President Clinton. For when a head of state falls from grace, so does his country, just as when a head of state walks tall, so does his country. The ancient Greeks, who expected gods to behave badly, had the right idea. Instead of demanding higher moral standards from their gods than from ordinary mortals, they expected lower ones, sensibly recognising that if gods were judged like ordinary mor- tals, that would be the end of gods, and the end, therefore, of Greece itself. Something of the same goes for presidents and kings. Because so much more depends on them as symbols, so much less can be expected of them as people.

Where does this leave investigative jour- nalism? At the bottom of the pile, in my book. Years ago, on a visit to Washington, when I was still editor of the Sunday Tele- graph, Ambrose, then a journalistic unknown quantity, twice invited himself to breakfast in my hotel room. Never have I been so impressed by anyone's inside knowl- edge. He seemed to know the dirt on every- one. As it happened, there was about to be a vacancy in the Washington office, and in the light of his sensational recent successes I have been kicking myself for not then and there offering him the job, which only came his way much later, in no way thanks to me. But not too hard. Perhaps I was right to be frightened by such a surfeit of zeal.

But that is by the way. For in a world where the liberal press dogs most certainly do get prizes for hounding presidents and dragging down princes, it will be a major scandal, worthy itself of being the subject of some investigative reporting, if a rare con: servative dog, with a nose quite as keen as theirs and teeth quite as sharp, does not also end up, equally garlanded, in the jour- nalistic pantheon of fame.