There is a danger in writing columns that you destroy everything. You begin by gleefully attacking your enemies, then you begin to attack your friends. You end up attacking yourself, like one of those nematode worms which, in a witless sexual frenzy, stabs itself to death with its own penis. This is the fate that awaits all of us scribblers — and fair enough, I suppose. So this week, then, halfway there: friends.
In fairness, Andrew Gilligan was never a very close friend of mine — we didn’t, you know, hang out. But I employed him as a reporter at the BBC Today programme and admired him as, I think, the finest investigative journalist I’ve come across. You may remember him from that ticklish little contretemps with the government back in 2003, when he suggested that Blair and Campbell had knowingly exaggerated the military threat posed by Saddam Hussein and had misrepresented the intelligence from the security services. That was the gist of the David Kelly affair and I wonder if there is anyone in Britain today, except Lord Hutton, who does not believe that Gilligan was right. He was also the first journalist to uncover the plans for a European Union constitution, for which story he was personally vilified in the lobby by the Downing Street spin machine. Since leaving Today he has rightly won numerous awards, not least for a relentless and painstaking exposure of Ken Livingstone’s numerous client groups and the money they received from the Mayor’s office. What I really liked about Gilligan, though, was his morality; his quaint conviction that journalism should be about exposing wrong-doing, no matter how much trouble it caused for himself. So different to the majority of other young journos I interviewed back then, at the BBC — the people who, when asked why they wanted to be a journalist replied, with an air of mystification, that they wanted ‘a job in the media’.
So what’s he doing — Gilligan — working for PressTv, the international propaganda channel run by the Iranian government? Taking money from police state goons to present a talk show on a channel which has no regard whatsoever for the truth? Being in the pay of a government which, back in Tehran, is rather more vigorous in its treatment of journalists like Gilligan than Alastair Campbell was. If Andrew were working in Iran I suspect he’d be short of one or two fingernails by now.
‘I’m not going to give you my reasons if you’re just going to rip the piss out of them,’ he says on the phone from his holiday in the west country.
‘Well, how can I know if I’m going to rip the piss out of them before I’ve heard them, Andrew?’
He sighs a lot. I hope he is sighing because he knows he’s done a bad thing rather than because he’s been found out. He explains that at first he thought that PressTV was an agreeable symptom of social change and greater openness in Iran, though he adds, ‘I may have been wrong about that.’ He says he has not worked for PressTV since the election and that its post-election coverage has been ‘flawed’ (no kidding, dude). He ‘might’ not work for it ever again. And how much did they pay you, Andrew?
‘Not that much.’
How much, exactly?
‘I’m not going to tell you that.’
‘Because I don’t want to. It’s private.’
Ah, yes, private. Of course it is, like moats and duck islands and flipped-out homes were supposed to be. Can you imagine if a politician worked regularly for the propaganda arm of a hostile fascist theocracy and insisted to us all that the money he made was a private concern? Well, actually, a couple of British MPs do work for PressTV — Derek Conway and George Galloway. Jesus, if Andrew wasn’t put off by the mullahs, you’d think he might at least have smelled a rat seeing Derek Conway getting his fat pasty face doused with powder in the make-up room. Conway — whip latterly withdrawn by David Cameron — misused taxpayers’ money to employ his son as a researcher. There is no record of his son having done any work whatsoever, but still Conway continues to draw his MP’s salary. Oddly, the horrible Galloway at least has the excuse that he has a soft spot for Iran. But the truth is that all of these eminent and quasi-eminent journalists who work or worked for PressTV — Gilligan, Afshan Rattsani (another ex-Today programme monkey), the Muslim convert Yvonne Ridley — as well as scumbags like Conway, were employed solely to give the channel a respectable gloss while its news programmes dissembled and told lies in the service of an authoritarian government. And underneath, I’m sure all of them know it. But they didn’t care, or chose not to think about it, because the money was good.
The hilarious ‘legal adviser’ to PressTV, a goateed idiot called Matthew Richardson, who was brilliantly taken apart on Newsnight by our own blogger Martin Bright, offered up the vague defence that ‘all’ media outlets are owned by someone, and these ‘someones’ might not always be terribly nice. Well, sure. But even Conrad Black and Robert Maxwell managed to resist the temptation to have reporters arrested and tortured. There is a difference, isn’t there?
It will be the journalists who next cop the brunt of public fury at what they see as a money-grubbing, amoral, privileged elite — and quite right too, I suppose. Much though we may joke, our expenses are usually nothing to write home about, save for one or two magnificent exceptions. But the question of who we whore ourselves out to without asking too many questions — 500 quid for a 500-word topless hand shandy? no problem, Ayatollah — will, I think, begin to be asked. There is a mood of public recrimination which began with the bankers, moved on to the politicians, and is now chipping away at the BBC and, by extension, the rest of the journalistic trade. I don’t see why we should be immune, to be honest. I don’t really understand why it is ok for Andrew Gilligan — a journalist in whom I have trust, in whose reports I have hitherto always believed — to trouser money from a source which is committed to suppressing the truth and beating up those who would dare to articulate it. We have blurred the edges of right and wrong for too long, twisted morality so that it fits conveniently with our mortgage interest payments and plans for a summer holiday, the same as the rest. Meanwhile, Andrew — enjoy your holiday, mate. And then get a f***ing grip.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 11, 2009