How incredible it is,’ wrote Stephen Glover in last week’s Spectator’s Media studies, ‘and how depressing,’ that Richard Desmond might buy the Telegraph. He went on to paint a most unflattering picture of the minor media magnate, his main complaint being that Mr Desmond is a pornographer because he owns publications that print pornography.
I am rather relaxed about pornography. Some of it isn’t very nice, but then much that we entertain in our heads isn’t very nice and it is at least an open question how far expressing our imaginings, or enjoying their expression by others, makes us worse (or better) people, or alters us in any important way. The current fuss about Internet porn strikes me as hysterical.
Nor is the link clear between indulging the imagination and encouraging its being carried into effect. Watching sport on television seems to be for most of my countrymen a substitute for taking part in it rather than a spur to do so, and I rather thought that the complaint by conservatives about the modern media was that gawping at magazines and television programmes encouraged people to live their lives by proxy. Millions buy ready-made TV dinners so that they can watch cooking programmes without needing to leave the sofa to fix a meal. Catharsis was thought in Ancient Greece to serve more as a release than a reinforcement. What practical effect a video of lesbians wrestling on a tiger-skin rug might have upon all those heterosexual males who seem to crave such entertainment I have not the least idea, but my guess is that the effect is minimal, except on the tiger.
It sometimes seems that for the moral Right the appearance in the mass media of activities it approves of prompts the cry ‘Watching is a substitute for doing: we are becoming a nation of voyeurs!’, while the appearance of activities of which it disapproves prompts the cry ‘Horrors! They’ll all be wanting to try it at home!’
Pornography is not respectable — Mr Glover and I can agree on that — but I sense that he was making a more serious objection to Mr Desmond: that he is a force for bad. Well, maybe. I could argue that support for the policies of the state of Israel, urged by the present proprietor of the Telegraph (and of this magazine), is doing more real harm in the world than anything attempted by Mr Desmond. Lord Black of Crossharbour could argue that it is my own beliefs on the Middle East which are pernicious. He might also (if reports we hear of his personal opinions are to be believed) privately think me a man of dubious moral judgment because I am openly homosexual and encourage others to be open too. And I might consider such opinions crazy. And where would it end? In lively, even angry, debate, one would hope — and no more.
Which is why I was taken aback to encounter the conclusion of Stephen Glover’s column about Richard Desmond: ‘Well, I would not write for him, and I am sure many others would not. I should far rather become a busker at Leicester Square Underground station. My cry to politicians and journalists of Right and Left, to those who love the Daily Telegraph and to all decent Britons, is: stop desmond.’
Golly. One’s immediate reaction is to mutter that for Stephen busking is not an option. Nobody is inviting him to be a busker. He wouldn’t be any good at it. He would be moved on. His poor upturned hat would remain empty of pennies. He is a superlative columnist, however, and will never be short of invitations to write. We must all place our upturned hats in the locations best calculated to attract the pennies, and mine is at the feet of Mr Rupert Murdoch and, less often, at those of Lord Black.
The pennies are unfailing. Neither of these two men has ever done me any harm. Neither has ever told me what to write or what not to write. Neither has so much as hinted at a preferred subject, or argument, or opinion. Both have appointed editors who have published without alteration what I have written, and scrupulously avoided interfering.
It has never been suggested that I should give a moment’s thought to the judgment of Mr Murdoch or Lord Black when I choose what to write, and I almost never do. I write what I like. They publish it. They pay me. Really I wonder whether it is modest for a writer to ask more of a patron than that.
But Stephen does ask more, and for reasons that are unquestionably principled and brave. If I understand him, then these amount to a refusal to associate his good name with (or help to promote the commercial interests of) a man he thinks bad. And as well as being a conscientious objector, Stephen seems to advocate a positive campaign: he wants journalists to unite in collective action to drive an unacceptable proprietor out of the newspaper industry — or at any rate out of Stephen’s and my part of the industry.
He is wrong, and his argument is dangerous. It cannot be founded on any basis but the assumption that by writing for a proprietor a journalist somehow associates himself with what, as a businessman or as an individual, the proprietor seems to stand for. This could become true simply by being taken to be true. If journalists resign whenever their periodicals are bought by someone offensive to them, the assumption will arise that any journalist who does not resign is content to be associated with his proprietor’s life or opinions. The very act of writing for a paper (rather than the contents of what one writes) will become a personal statement. Far from re-moralising the public print, this would deaden, it tending to produce stables of writers of like mind with their proprietors.
And it must work both ways. If Stephen is to take that approach to proprietors, why shouldn’t proprietors take the same approach to him? Yet were any proprietor to start dismissing columnists on the grounds that their opinions or morals were unacceptable to him, would we not protest that writers do not pretend to speak for their editors or proprietors, our lives and opinions being our own? Well then, Mr Desmond’s life and opinions are his own, too. We should be prepared to extend to proprietors a liberty we expect them to extend to us.
And on the whole they do. There is one exception. You do not attack your proprietor personally, or his family, or his interests, in his own newspaper. That is so widely understood that none of us, I think, is compromised by respecting it.
There is nobody — not Satan himself —for whom I would in principle not write, and no publication — no, not even a Nazi broadsheet — for which I would in principle not write, so long as I had the assurance I could write what I liked. It is my relationship with readers that matters; they must know it is not mediated by the proprietor. To respect that is all we should ask of him.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.