A funny thing happened to me on the way to The Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year lunch. The early crowd in the foyer of Claridge’s ballroom was largely made up of City guests invited by our excellent sponsor, Threadneedle Investments, while less well-mannered parliamentary and media guests arrived late or not at all. I recognised several senior figures from my own banking days, among them a former colleague. Since this column is, this once, about journalistic good manners rather than corporate name-dropping, I will not hint at his identity. We exchanged pleasantries until a third party in the conversation moved away; then he brought his face closer to mine, with a rather chilly smile, and said quietly: ‘I thought what you wrote about Jack was unforgivable.’
That’s a strong word to have hissed at you at a champagne reception. Jack’s real name can be uncovered easily enough in Falling Eagle — my book about what seemed to be the declining fortunes of Barclays Bank — but it feels appropriate to say no more about Jack here than that he was one of our former bosses. He died almost a decade ago, and I wrote an obituary of him at the time which alluded tactfully to appetites for booze and nightlife, and a tendency to become incoherent under the influence of both, facts that were common knowledge among the tribe of international banking sophisticates to which he belonged. The obituary was well received, but four years later in Falling Eagle I offered a more richly anecdotal and, I fear, unrestrainedly comic account of Jack’s weaknesses. I also made the point that his business judgment was well respected and that ‘he was a genuine human being: you could not help but like him’. Nevertheless, I was aware that some people thought I was out of order, and last week’s encounter was an unexpected opportunity to analyse why.
It was not that anyone really challenged the substance of my description of Jack. What my Claridge’s accuser disapproved of, he said, was the element of ‘kiss and tell’ — meaning, I guess, that I had revealed, for personal gain and regardless of the harm to Jack’s reputation, tittle-tattle about incidents which Jack could not have imagined would ever be recorded in print. In doing so, I had committed an act of cynical bad taste and tribal disloyalty.
This was, you may be thinking, a wickedly appropriate topic for an impromptu argument at a Spectator party, but it took me aback. I stumbled to make the point that other former colleagues had written from around the world to tell me that I had let Jack off lightly, and that I myself felt I had been unfair to him only in the sense that the law of libel — or rather the publisher’s fear of it — had prevented me from including similarly frank portraits of other characters in the story who are still alive. Then we were interrupted by other guests and ushered to lunch at different tables; so unforgiven is how I must remain.
It is a status which many journalists would regard as an accolade — worthy of its own awards ceremony, even. But it has been troubling me all week, while the airwaves have been filled with debate about the alleged lapses of etiquette and loyalty committed by Sir Christopher Meyer in being so frank about his former political masters in his book DC Confidential. Incidentally, I once enjoyed Sir Christopher’s hospitality in the Washington embassy and thought at the time that his red socks and irreverent swagger marked him out as a dangerous man — but there I go again, recycling trivia picked up in private to fill the printed page.
Many pundits have leapt to Meyer’s defence, and it is instructive to compare his case and mine. First, politicians’ weaknesses and peccadillos are these days considered fair game. Second, Meyer’s victims are all still here to defend their own reputations and have a go at damaging his. It is a curious reflection that the recently but not immediately dead — like Jack — are the most vulnerable of all when it comes to attacks with the pen: protected neither by libel law nor by the tactfulness of the obituary genre, yet not long enough departed that a warts-and-all portrait will be read as an objective contribution to history, rather than an offence to family and friends.
And businesspeople, dead or alive, are usually considered less fair game than politicians and other species of celebrity. Chief executives and entrepreneurs do not hold themselves up as representatives or role models for society at large, and (with the possible exception of Sir Richard Branson, for whom personal celebrity has been a powerful tool of brand management) they do not generally seek fame for its own sake. Wealth inevitably attracts curiosity and envy, and it is always fun to find a ‘five-times-a-night tycoon’ plastered across tabloid headlines. But, unless they impinge on his daytime performance, that does not mean we are in any sense entitled to know his night-time secrets.
Business leaders would clearly prefer to be judged only in terms of commercial profit and probity. Arguably, it is no one’s affair but their own if they are cocaine-crazed, cruel to animals or keen on cross-dressing, so long as they generate, by honest endeavour, a sufficient measure of shareholder value during what is often a relatively brief tenure at the top. Luke Johnson wrote in his Sunday Telegraph column recently about the discomfort of senior businessmen who are gay but not ‘out’ — and fearful of the scru- tiny and prejudice they would encounter if they became so, either by choice or by media insinuation. The business world is essentially a workplace of private citizens who cleave to the unliberated conventions and net-curtain privacy of the neighbourhoods to which they return at the end of the office day. It does not relish or welcome the casual intrusiveness of modern journalism; it does not want to be asked on Woman’s Hour whether it prefers blondes to brunettes, or briefs to boxers.
But that does not mean that senior businesspeople, who may not count as public figures but are certainly role models, can expect to get away with personal behaviour of the kind that would get them thrown out of any suburban golf club. Did I cross a line by revealing quite so much about Jack’s bad habits? I bore him no malice, but I owed him no loyalty and I described what I saw. I admit I also made some tasteless jokes about him — his answer to the Woman’s Hour questions, by the way, would have been preferably both and frequently neither. But for that I think I can forgive myself.