Max Hastings

Diary - 14 December 2002

The former editor of the Telegraph bemoans the poverty of the soundbite culture

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Two or three times a week, some radio or television programme telephones, usually in search of a soundbite. That I should be so lucky, you may say. How flattering. Yes, but nobody ever mentions money. The ability to turn a phrase is the only marketable skill a journalist possesses. No newspaper would ask a professional writer to produce even a couple of hundred words without mentioning a fee, however modest. Yet broadcast producers do this to hundreds of us every day. The assumption is that we will perform for the mere thrill of gaining access to the airwaves. Politicians, of course, are always up for it. Why should the rest of us be? Factual broadcasting is at a low ebb partly because it is pitifully underfunded. Contrast the parsimonious attitude of current affairs with that of the showbiz end of the trade. A BBC TV chat show rang when I was promoting a book, suggested that I should appear, and asked if a four-figure fee would be acceptable. 'Absolutely,' I said. 'Where do I send the cheque?' 'No, no,' said the researcher. 'We pay you.' Yet the exposure was priceless to me, when I was peddling my wares. Whence the sudden BBC largesse? The programme was light entertainment, not current affairs. Sport is even more generous.

Reading Thomas Pakenham's splendid new book on trees, I feel full of admiration for the way in which, over the past decade, Thomas has made himself a fine photographer as well as writer. He is also a master of Pakenham whimsy. Almost 30 years ago, he caused a great cabin to be constructed halfway up the trunks of four young conifers on his estate in Ireland, allegedly for the children. He said how eagerly he looked forward to watching the cabin soar skywards as the trees grew. I suggested that he could be in for a long wait. Thomas has since learned a lot more about arboriculture. At about the cabin period, after an animated chat at a club where we happened to meet, after lunch we walked together down the street and talked all the way to Hammersmith on the Tube. As I set out to cross the river to Barnes, where I lived, I said to Thomas, 'But you don't live anywhere near here.' He said, 'I was enjoying our conversation so much that I thought it was worth the trip.' It seemed the nicest gesture any friend has ever made to me.

A columnist recently recorded an exchange of correspondence with Jonathan King, the former music producer who is serving a sentence for paedophile offences. King obviously makes a habit of this, for I found myself receiving a letter from him. He wrote on lavishly engraved paper from Belmarsh, reminding me that we were at school together. How would I feel, he asked, if he suddenly denounced me anonymously to the police, claiming that I had jumped on him behind the bike sheds at Charterhouse 40 years ago, and I found myself convicted and imprisoned as a result? This, he asserted, was what had happened to him. I wrote back saying that his scenario seemed implausible, since at the age of 16 I was irredeemably unappealing to either sex. This prompted a further letter from Belmarsh: 'Oh, come on, you weren't that ugly.' There the exchange ended. David English once observed that paedophilia is now the only crime the British public never forgives. Fraud, GBH, murder are perfectly acceptable, especially if one is a footballer. But crimes involving children put a man for ever beyond the pale. I could not tell Jonathan King that I regretted his conviction. Yet it seems impossible not to pity someone whom one liked once, who ends up serving a term of imprisonment, however horrid the crime.

A generous host recently gave us 1982 Cheval Blanc one night, and 1981 Latour the next. The difference between good wine and plonk is plain to even the least sophisticated palate. Yet once one has crossed a certain threshold, I often wonder whether it makes sense for even rich men to pay the premium demanded for the very best. Is the difference between, say, a £50 bottle and a £200 bottle really reflected in the experience? Wine writers will no doubt say that it is, but then they are seldom paying for what they sample.

Like millions of other travellers, I try to teach myself the power of positive thinking when confronted with the collapse of the transport system. Over the past century, we have acquired absurdly extravagant ideas of how far we can expect to travel how fast, in a given period. In London, I walk a lot. This is tremendously efficient, compared with any other means of movement in Mayor Livingstone's dominion. And instead of bemoaning the services that have grown worse in recent times, when stuck on a train I catalogue the things that have got better: phones, planes, cash machines, food, cars, weatherproof clothing, domestic heating, home appliances. It is not a bad list.

Michael Howard - the good Michael Howard the academic, not the politician - has been celebrating his 80th birthday. There is no better living British historian. He unites wisdom and common sense in a remarkable fashion, as one of his successors as Chichele Professor at Oxford, Hew Strachan, said in a brilliant lecture about him at King's College London last week. So many writers impose the values and hindsights of the 21st century upon the thought-processes of people living in an utterly different era. When studying the wars of history, I recite under my breath one of Michael's caveats: 'We must never forget that there was a time when events now in the past were still in the future.'

There was an old joke about the impossibility of finding unsigned copies of Ted Heath's books. Yet it seemed understandable that buyers valued the autograph of an ex-prime minister. It is more puzzling that the phenomenon has spread to embrace authors of every kind. My tribe troops the land, signing manically. After two or three hours, the task becomes reminiscent of some Sisyphean schoolboy punishment. It is not that one minds doing it, however, if this is what the market demands. Like most authors, I would strip in the street to boost sales. Shops say that some customers simply will not buy an unsigned book. Heywood Hill is one of the few establishments to resist the trend. John Saumarez Smith was recently obliged to expel an author whom he caught frenziedly signing stock when she thought no one was looking. Some of us get so carried away that we absent-mindedly autograph telephone directories while waiting for a call.