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More power to the press

As politicians become ever more cowed and curtailed, the press only grows in power, says Boris Johnson. Ministers may complain, but in fact this is exactly as it should be

9 June 2010

12:00 AM

9 June 2010

12:00 AM

It has for many years been a commonplace of political analysis that journalists have grown in stature as we politicians have shrunk. But the full reality of our reduced condition was rammed home to me, yet again, on the morning after the general election.

On the invitation of the BBC I went on telly to comment on the prospects of an exciting new Lib-Con coalition. I was falteringly trying to give my opinion when my interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, broke in.

‘Haven’t you got a city to run?’ he said with his trademark testiness. ‘Then why don’t you go off and run it!’

I did manage to say something in return, but by then Zeus had turned his shining eyes away and the overall effect was, no doubt, like a fifth-former caught in the tuck shop and being ticked off by the most sneering and flowery-waistcoated of all the prefects in the school.

We have just been through the most protracted humiliation of politicians, at the hands of the media, that this country has ever seen. In the last 18 months many of my former parliamentary colleagues have been reduced to a kind of moral zombiedom, staggering around like Japanese generals after Nagasaki or like the poor blue-nosed people from Avatar, overwhelmed by the superior firepower of the press.

We have been stripped of our second homes. We have forfeited trust. We have lost our dignity. We have even had our porn videos confiscated. It has been a complete rout. The nation has responded with a most unusual event — a hung parliament — the psephological equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders, because the sympathy of the public has been overwhelmingly with the media, and the electorate has strongly supported the brilliant truffle-hounds of the newspapers as they have dug out the malodorous truth and laid it before them.

In fact, I don’t think there has been a single specimen of political life who has elicited the slightest peep of compassion — until, that is, David Laws came a cropper the other day. Mr Laws was of course just as culpable as many others. But I did for the first time in the expenses scandal notice a certain restiveness, an impatience in the audience.

How long was it all going to continue? How many more sacrifices to Moloch, some of my friends seemed to be saying. So can I nervously seize on that moment of doubt to pose a few questions about journalists and politicians, and the relative positions of the two professions in this scandal-blasted landscape?

I mean: which of the two behaves better? Which earns more money? Who has more power? Who really runs Britain? I speak as a Tiresias who has seen both sides of the debate, and in so far as the relationship between journalists and politicians is meant to be like that between a dog and a lamppost, then I am a kind of Dali-style dog-cum-lamppost.


But the truth is you don’t need much expertise in either profession to be struck by the contrast between the ignominy of politicians and the impunity of journalists. In the old days, the assumption was that journalists had more fun, but politicians had more power — or at the very worst, more of the trappings of power. That was the symmetry.

In the old days of the Spectator garden party, for instance, journalists were broadly expected to get drunk, make improper advances to one another and fall asleep in the flower beds. Politicians had less leeway to behave badly but on the whole, at the end of the evening, they had the sense of superiority that comes with a car, a driver, and a red ministerial box winking on the back seat. Journalism was something you did for all kinds of reasons — because you loved writing, because you got a thrill from seeing your name in the paper, because you wanted to bring new and important facts into the public domain, or because you were frankly unsuited to doing anything else. Hardly anyone went into journalism expecting to get rich, and no one joined the BBC in the hope of being paid — out of public funds — about four times more than the Prime Minister. I don’t just mean the Director General, who is on a total package of around £834,000, or the legions of stonkingly remunerated executives like the head of newsgathering or the head of BBC North, though heaven knows what the head of BBC North does except to ensure that his pay, like that of so many others, is north of £400k. We still don’t know about the BBC talent. Marr, Dimbleby, Paxman — they went through a whole election dominated by politicians’ expenses without revealing what they earn.

Even though I asked Paxman 14 times in a Newsnight interview to tell us how much he hauls down from the taxpayer, he still refuses to cough — not surprisingly, since the total package is thought to be over a million — and the chickenhearted BBC still refuses to broadcast the interview in full.

In fact, if you were a particularly self-pitying sort of politician, you might start to think there is one law for us and one law for them. Take cars. I am absolutely delighted that David Cameron has begun to kick government ministers out of their absurd ministerial cars, though frankly I would go further.

I would take away any kind of taxpayer subsidy for any member of the political classes to drive a car in London, because we want these people down the Tube with the rest of us. We want them strap-hanging and armpit-nuzzling all August until they understand the vital importance of building Crossrail, installing air-conditioning and generally investing in London’s transport infrastructure.

In so far as the papers are now publishing long-lens naughty shots of ministers getting into their cars when they should be riding a bike, that is a good thing. But it is nonetheless a measure of the changed and fallen state of politicians. If they are so lucky as to be lunched by an editor, they must now expect to come out of the restaurant in search of the bus, while the editor will still be picked up by his gliding air-conditioned Merc.

Or take expenses, the cause of all the recent woe. Following the trail blazed by City Hall, politicians across the land are now obliged to register everything and put it online, where all claims are deservedly open to the scorn and ridicule of the public. But what about the press, who orchestrate the scorn and the ridicule? What about their expenses, eh?

If you were a self-pitying sort of politician, you might think these matters were protected by an omertà, a freemasonry of silence. I seem to think there is a famous BBC presenter who bought a farmhouse in Wales on the proceeds of his lavish expenses in South Africa, and I fondly remember a BBC colleague in Brussels who claimed for a lawnmower without taking the essential precaution of owning a lawn.

Or contrast our general methods of work, where politicians are now required to be so slavishly transparent that it has become virtually impossible to compose a confidential memorandum. Any letter or email that I write can now be instantly demanded under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, with the (bad) result that politicians are increasingly deciding not to write things down, or at least not in a form that can be electronically transmitted.

If there is one thing that is reviving the ancient art of sitting down and writing a letter, putting a stamp on it and popping it in the post, it is the blasted Freedom of Information Act. Journalists, on the other hand, are under no such obligations. They can carry on with their traditional practices of bugging, stinging, trapping and generally monstering their targets with absolutely no system of redress or accountability. They pay public workers to breach the privacy of the public — how else do you think we get to hear about what happens in hospitals or police stations, for instance? &#
8212; and yet no one dares to lift a finger against them. They are regulated by a Press Complaints Commission which enforces a code of practice presided over by the editor of the Daily Mail. I am sure he is a fine fellow in many ways, but it is a bit like putting the Boston Strangler in charge of the code of practice for door-to-door salesmen. The media is now abetted, moreover, by a vast hydra-headed army of public apprentices armed with cameraphones and the ability to upload anything embarrassing on to the internet.

Now take all these things together — the cars, the salaries, the expenses, the general patterns of behaviour — and you might start to feel a smidgeon of sympathy for the poor battered politicians. You might start to think there was something unhealthy in the change in the balance of power. You might start to feel that the power of the media has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. Is that what you feel? Then fight it. Dismiss it out of hand. So the media don’t declare their salaries or expenses. Well, with the exception of the BBC they are employed by private companies and can do what they want. And yes, the media occasionally trap people in a way that seems monstrously unfair. I couldn’t for the life of me see the public interest in what they did to Lord Triesman.

But then along comes the hilarious tape of the Duchess of York and the Fake Sheikh, where publication was patently justified, not least because it provided heart-warming proof of the vibrancy of the London economy. Here we have a single mother of modest means setting up a business in the back room of a London restaurant, where she proposes to charge foreigners half a million pounds for the privilege of talking to Prince Andrew. That is enterprise, and we should be grateful to the News of the World for reminding us that it is not dead.

That story took time, it took money (the $40,000 the Duchess took from the table, the whereabouts of which is still not clear), and my worry is not so much about the behaviour of the press; my worry is that technology is destroying the case for investing in such excellent journalism. How can a newspaper website — subsidised by newspaper buyers — compete in the long term with a BBC website that is subsidised by a £145 tax on every TV-owning household in the country?

It is monstrously unfair, and that is why I have some sympathy with Rupert Murdoch, and his attempts to put the content of the Times behind a paywall. You can wonder whether it will work, and you can wonder how many people will pay to go behind the wall. But at least he is trying to protect and justify investment in quality journalism, and the real story of the last 18 months is how that journalism has proved its value to society. The expenses scoop of the Daily Telegraph was a magnificent vindication of old-fashioned investigative reporting, and it needed a broadsheet newspaper to give the story the projection and the explication it deserved; and yet it was also much more than that. After more than ten years of splurge, it focused the minds of the public on the way politicians were spending their money.

If you really want an answer to who has the whip hand, politicians or journalists, it was all there in that symbolic story of parliamentary excess. It’s the politicians who take the decisions, I am afraid. They wield the budgets. It is the politicians who have racked up a deficit of £156 billion and recklessly expanded the public-sector vote bank. It is the politicians who decide to go to war on a lie. The best hope for our society is to have a strong and incorrigible media to contain their excesses, to monitor their expenditure, and generally to give them a tough time, and there I am afraid I must leave it because, as Jeremy Paxman would have long ago pointed out, I have a city to run.

This is a version of a lecture given at this week’s Charles Wheeler award for journalism.


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