A very high-minded European recently complained to me about British newspapers. Why are they all so awful, he asked? Even the so-called serious ones look like comics, with their pictures of footballers and half-naked actresses on the masthead. As for the tabloids, he went on, their venom, iconoclasm and sheer beastliness, not to mention their obsession with third-rate celebrities, were incroyable. France had a truly intellectual newspaper in Le Monde, whose cultural, foreign and political coverage surpassed anything available in Britain. And Germany, Italy and Spain boasted several almost equally fine papers, and had nothing which remotely compared to our trashy tabloids.
He looked at me with pity, and I muttered that maybe he had a point. Had I not grumbled in this very column about the dumbing down of the Times, masterminded by my old friend? Did I not last week take issue with the new editor of the Sun, Rebekah Wade, who in her previous job running the News of the World inflamed the mobs who went a-rampaging through several British cities? It would take a hard nut not to concede that my high-minded French friend had a point. And yet, as I reflected upon this, I thought of the strange case of the Mail on Sunday, which has just been injuncted by Gerhard Schroeder, the Chancellor of Germany.
Let me declare an interest, and remind readers that I write a column for the Mail on Sunday's sister paper, the Daily Mail. (Let me also add that I am working on a story about the Mail on Sunday which appears to show it in a rather less favourable light.) The facts of this case are as follows. On 5 January the paper published a story alleging that Mr Schroeder, who has been married four times, was 'rumoured to be close' to a glamorous television presenter. According to the Mail on Sunday's report, the German Chancellor had prevented a local newspaper in Germany from publishing details of the relationship. None of this went down well in Berlin. Mr Schroeder applied under German privacy laws to a court in Hamburg (which did not bother to involve the Mail on Sunday in its deliberations) and obtained an injunction which threatened the newspaper with a fine of up to £164,000 if it repeated its allegations.
The judgment of the Hamburg court seems somewhat unsound since it does not obviously have jurisdiction in Britain. (That may change, however, if the European Union gets its way.) The Mail on Sunday did not even distribute its issue of 5 January in Germany. Last Sunday the paper ran an editorial which told Mr Schroeder where he could put his allegations. But they have not so far been spelt out in the German national press. It seems likely that in threatening a British newspaper Mr Schroeder was warning German publications against breaking their time-honoured code. They almost never write about the private lives of leading politicians.
Many British people would probably agree that if Tony Blair were having an affair with a trapeze artiste, we would want to be told. It might have all kinds of repercussions. But Germans, like other Continentals, take a different view. Or, even if they do not, they are not informed what their politicians are getting up to. Allegations surrounding the private life of the former chancellor Helmut Schmidt were never investigated, and rumours concerning the personal affairs of Helmut Kohl have been barely aired. It has been the same in France. FranŒois Mitterrand kept a mistress by whom he had a daughter, but this only came to light shortly before his death when a book was published. It was condemned by politicians of all persuasions.
Some will think this lack of prurience refreshing. But one can't help observing that the same European newspapers which ignore politicians' sexual peccadillos are also rather slow on the uptake in investigating their financial irregularities, which in most European countries are legion. There are, of course, exceptions. In Germany Der Spiegel exposed the Flick affair in the 1980s. In France Le Canard encha”nZ has flayed successive governments. But serious newspapers, particularly in France, do not often make the running in exposing scandals involving money. Is there perhaps a connection here? Newspapers which turned a blind eye to the sexual adventures of President Mitterrand were also not quick to condemn him for the sleazy and sometimes criminal friends and associates with whom he surrounded himself.
European journalists tend to be more respectable than British journalists. They are often very charming and erudite. But the desire for respectability can be the enemy of robust journalism. The Paris correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, Philip Delves Broughton, recently described how French journalists crowded sycophantically around President Jacques Chirac at a party to celebrate the New Year. Journalists in France even enjoy special tax breaks. My high-minded French friend may be appalled by our newspapers, and their lack of higher seriousness, but he overlooks the gains bestowed by their irreverence. Britain, after all, probably has the least corrupt political class in Europe, though there is certainly much room for improvement. The British press resembles a very cross and rather ugly guard dog, which slavers and growls a good deal, and is quite effective at keeping politicians on their toes.
The Times has become the repository of stories suggesting that IDS will soon be separated from the leadership of the Tory party. There is one virtually every day. I was struck by a piece on the paper's front page last Saturday which reported that 'a group of senior Tory MPs are seeking the backing of their constituency associations to table a no-confidence motion in Iain Duncan Smith and oust him as party leader'. No names were mentioned. On the comment page of the Times, the columnist Mary Ann Sieghart used the story to preach a sermon about the general uselessness of IDS. She wrote that 'last weekend a meeting of constituency association chairmen from Sussex concluded that the situation was untenable and that Mr Duncan Smith would have to go'.
Ms Sieghart is a New Labour groupie, and any Tory who takes advice from her about the future of the party should have his head looked at. Nonetheless, her column was illuminating - in particular its reference to those 'constituency associations from Sussex' which allegedly want to give IDS the heave-ho. There was no such reference to these worthies in the accompanying front-page piece, nor have I been able to find mention of them elsewhere in the Times or any other newspaper. It was as though Ms Sieghart knew more about the background than did the front-page article. Was she perhaps in part its instigator? Did she, by mentioning Sussex, inadvertently reveal more than she had intended? I have been trying to think of Sussex Tory MPs who might know and even admire Ms Sieghart, and perhaps have reservations about IDS, and the best I have come up with is Francis Maude. But surely he cannot have been feeding information to this New Labour siren.