Thomas Barnes, who edited the Times from 1817 to 1841, declared that the ‘newspaper is not an organ through which government can influence people, but through which people can influence the government.’
There have been periods when principle guided the Times — for instance when the great war correspondent W.H. Russell exposed government incompetence in the Crimean War. At other times the newspaper has a tendency to become the organ of official opinion, impartially supporting any political party (just so long as it happens to be the one in power).
Ten years ago its political pages resembled a New Labour noticeboard. As Tony Blair fell and a Conservative government started to look likely, the Times editor, James Harding, appointed Daniel Finkelstein chief leader writer.
Mr Finkelstein is a decent, highly intelligent man, who lacks an ounce of malice. He has spent his life in politics, working first for Lord (David) Owen, then as head of research at Conservative Central Office under John Major, and later as a political adviser to William Hague. No murmurs of disapprobation were heard six weeks ago when he was elevated to the House of Lords.
Perhaps there should have been. For all his genuine kindness and geniality, there is something troubling about Lord Finkelstein. As with many members of the political class, it is hard to discern where his allegiance lies. There are many examples of this conflict of loyalties.
In the early part of 2011 Daniel Finkelstein became chairman of Policy Exchange, the Conservative think tank. In discussions leading up his appointment, it became clear that the time he could give to the task was limited – due to his Downing Street workload, not because of his formal role as chief leader writer of the Times.
Lord Finkelstein is close to the Prime Minister. At the start of the Leveson Inquiry, David Cameron submitted lists of all the media figures he had met since entering Downing Street. Finkelstein’s name was not on it. Once on the witness stand he gave a very curious explanation: it emerged that Mr Finkelstein was part of a small number of journalists that ‘I see very regularly and I’m never going to remember to tell my office every time I see them.’
(Mr Cameron named five more such journalists, three of whom worked for the Times. One, Christopher Lockwood of the Economist, has since joined the No. 10 Policy Unit.)
Lord Finkelstein is, however, closer by far to George Osborne. One senior Times writer told me three years ago that he spoke ‘six or seven times a day. probably more’ to the Chancellor. Mr Osborne once reportedly remarked that he spoke to Mr Finkelstein more often then he did to his wife. But when Mr Osborne appeared in front of Lord Justice Leveson, the following exchange occurred:
Q. ‘Does he [Finkelstein] act for you as a sort of unpaid adviser and/or speech writer?’
A. ‘No, he’s just a very good friend.’
The Chancellor was asked whether Finkelstein ever helped ‘in the drafting of your statements and speeches’.
The answer came back: ‘I talk to him about politics, like I do my other friends, and he occasionally provides good one liners and jokes.’
Lord Justice Leveson did not challenge this account, which was given under oath, but others are less convinced. Three years ago Paul Waugh, a political journalist, reported that ‘on the train back from the Labour conference in Liverpool last week Daniel was said to be overheard talking rather loudly on his mobile. First he called to arrange a taxi from Euston to No. 10. He then apparently rang his mother to say that he was too busy writing George Osborne’s conference speech.’
When Mr Waugh checked with ‘friends of Daniel’, he met with denials that he wrote the speech. However, Waugh was later able to establish that he ‘did indeed play a key role in the drafting team’.
On the eve of last year’s reshuffle, Iain Duncan Smith was watching Newsnight when Mr Finkelstein said he should be moved. Certain that Finkelstein was speaking for Osborne, Duncan Smith thereafter refused to budge (Finkelstein afterwards insisted he was only expressing his own opinion).
Political journalists have long scanned Mr Finkelstein’s columns for guidance about the Chancellor’s thinking. There is an uncanny congruity of views. Over the last few weeks Daniel Finkelstein mounted a strong defence of HS2, the high-speed rail link and also for military intervention in Syria, both pet enthusiasms of the Chancellor.
One insider told me that ‘what Danny writes today George thinks tomorrow’. This is a reversal of the normal order of precedence, whereby articles by journalists reflect what they have been told by politicians. But Mr Finkelstein is the intellectual and moral superior (and former boss) of the Chancellor, and informed people know that.
So Mr Finkelstein must often have found himself in the position of commenting on a speech that he had helped to draft. To summarise: George Osborne himself might as well have been personally present at Times leader conferences during the years when Daniel Finkelstein was in charge. Good luck to the Chancellor, some will say. But Times readers were kept in the dark. At one stage, Rupert Murdoch himself grew so concerned about the situation (and the Times’s soft editorial stance) that he started to speak to candidates who would replace Finkelstein. But nothing came of it.
From 2008 onwards Mr Finkelstein became a significant part of the enormous blob that incorporated the Cameron Conservative party, a powerful group of orphaned Blairites, and the Murdoch empire. As GQ magazine once put it: ‘Nothing happens at The Times without his input.’ When Rebekah Wade was promoted to head News International, Finkelstein was on hand to describe her as a ‘very charismatic, almost enchanting personality and that is very good for the business’.
He defended Andy Coulson, who had earlier resigned as editor of the News of the World, when he joined the Conservative party as media chief, and claimed there had been only a ‘handful’ of phone-hacking victims. This statement was true to the official Murdoch/Cameron/Osborne corporate doctrine. Whether it was completely true to anything else may be more questionable. But speaking truth to power (the most honorable and worthwhile function of any journalist or newspaper) is not an idea that Daniel Finkelstein readily comprehends.
When Mr Coulson (who faces criminal charges relating to phone hacking, also perjury) resigned from Downing Street two years later, Finkelstein told Times readers: ‘Outside Westminster, very few people have heard of Mr Coulson and even fewer care about him and the questions about phone hacking. Mr Cameron’s team were confident that they could let the story go on and on without it damaging their political standing. And, even now they are reasonably certain that the story will not prove all that damaging. Voters will dismiss it as boring political gossip, remote from their lives.’ As ever Finkelstein was parroting the views of his friend George Osborne (and, of course, vice versa).
But when the journalist Heather Brooke campaigned for MPs to publish their expenses, Daniel Finkelstein was less sympathetic. He complained about attempts to force MPs into ‘scouring the petty cash receipts’. Even when the Telegraph revealed the staggering scale of parliamentary greed and corruption his Times leader column still stuck up for bent MPs.
As any newspaperman will recognise, Daniel Finkelstein has never in truth been a journalist at all. At the Times he was an ebullient and cheerful manifestation of what all of us can now recognise as a disastrous collaboration between Britain’s most powerful media empire and a morally bankrupt political class. He is, however, a powerful manifestation of the post-modern collapse of boundaries between politics and journalism. Thomas Barnes would never have allowed Daniel Finkelstein near the paper. If somehow he had intruded, he would have had him thrown out. James Harding was the editor who let him in — and carries a great deal of the blame.
The wretched Harding was notable for two things besides Finkelstein. The paper’s circulation sank by 40 per cent during his time in charge. Harding was offered, and turned down, the MPs’ expenses story, which was later brilliantly exploited by the Daily Telegraph. Late last year Rupert Murdoch sacked Harding, but happily he soon found a new post as head of news and current affairs at the BBC.
The Times has a new acting editor in John Witherow, a proper newspaperman who is said to be unamused by Finkelstein and is now attempting to ‘de-Fink’ the paper (Finkelstein remains a columnist, but has no executive power). Meanwhile, we should all thank David Cameron for recommending his old chum to the peerage and finally making an honest man of Lord Finkelstein of Pinner, who will fit in well at the House of Lords: there are a lot of people in there just like him.
As for Mr Harding, the BBC head of news, someone should order him to sit down and write out one thousand times the words of the legendary Washington correspondent Arthur Krock: ‘The price of friendship with a politician is too great for any newspaperman to pay.’
Peter Oborne is the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator and an associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 28 September 2013