Peter Oborne

Politicians and journalists are in a conspiracy against the public

Politicians and journalists are in a conspiracy against the public

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The universal predicament which confronts the western world at the start of the 21st century concerns the breakdown of boundaries. Philosophers blur the distinction between good and evil; society no longer protects family life; sociologists applaud the collapse of class barriers; globalisation challenges national borders; postmodernism asserts that truth and falsehood are the same. The act of adultery, with its savage betrayal of marriage, is the most accessible metaphor for our sorrowful modern predicament.

At Westminster, as elsewhere, we suffer from transgression of boundaries. There are numerous examples of this in contemporary politics. One of the most curious is the collapse of the dividing line between politician and journalist. Go back just 50 years and you find that the limits between the political and media classes were zealously guarded. We journalists reported events from the press gallery, but never mingled with the protagonists down below. It was sometimes the task of Gerald Herlihy, political correspondent of the Daily Graphic, to arrange lunches on behalf of Lady Kemsley, his proprietor’s wife. But he never attended them.

That kind of relationship between reporters and MPs may strike modern observers as embarrassingly deferential. But the beauty of the connection was its distance. Today politicians and correspondents are hugger-mugger: they dine together, conspire together, in some instances go on holiday together. The arrangement, of course, brings compelling advantages for both parties. For the journalist there is access, and stories delivered on a plate. The politician is buying protection. He calculates that, in return for the access and favours, the difficult questions will never get asked. Both parties are taking part in a conspiracy against the public. The system produces a knowing, deceitful press and scheming, manipulative politicians: the kind of arrangement we have today.

David Blunkett, for all the outward paraphernalia as a straightforward kind of guy, is a classic manifestation of the new media/ political conspiracy. His relationship with Kimberly Quinn, publisher of The Spectator — a journal which continues to produce more news than it can consume locally — is barely relevant here. Mrs Quinn concerned herself with the commercial side of the magazine. But Blunkett’s relationship with News International titles, and to a much lesser extent Associated Newspapers, is of the keenest interest.

The Home Secretary has gone to extraordinary lengths to cultivate Rupert Murdoch, his executives and his political correspondents. One example is enough to give a flavour of how the collusion worked. In the summer of 2003 the Sun launched a thunderous campaign against asylum-seekers. It devoted the third week of August to a series of hair-raising stories which gave credence to the paper’s sensational claim that ‘the flood of shirkers, scroungers and criminals has to be stopped’. On the Thursday, bang on cue, David Blunkett gave an interview. ‘I am not in dispute with the Sun on this week’s coverage,’ he flattered the paper, and went on to promise ‘draconian’ measures to deal with the problem. Sun readers never knew that Blunkett had quietly agreed to meet the paper and knew about the campaign before it had even started.

The rewards for this sort of collaboration have been very substantial indeed. In the normal course of events, last winter’s immigration shambles would have been enough to claim a home secretary. But the Sun and the Daily Mail — often arbiters of the fate of ministers — protected David Blunkett. News International titles have continued to protect him throughout the long, wounding Kimberly Quinn imbroglio. The story of the Home Secretary’s love affair was broken last August in the News of the World, which has treated him with quite startling generosity ever since, leading to speculation of a trade-off. Recent weeks have seen a large number of articles by political columnists praising Blunkett’s single-minded pursuit of Mrs Quinn. It is perhaps not unrealistic to connect this heartening show of support with the fact that David Blunkett is a famous Cabinet leaker, one of the all-time greats, known for planting venomous stories against (among others) Gordon Brown.

A second key area of transgression concerns the boundaries between private interests and the state. This distinction was classically set out in the Northcote Trevelyan report into the Civil Service, commissioned by Gladstone in 1854. Its principles of integrity and impartiality remained a specially admirable feature of the British state throughout the 20th century. Early this year Tony Blair, in a speech marking the 150th anniversary of Northcote Trevelyan, asserted that the British Civil Service ‘knows the difference between obeying legitimate political orders and impropriety’. (Those who wish to assess how well Tony Blair himself respects these principles are advised to read the contribution by Michael Quinlan and Lord Wilson in the British Academy pamphlet ‘Hutton and Butler: Lifting the Lid on the Workings of Power’.)

In opposition, David Blunkett was an eager defender of the doctrine that lay behind the Northcote Trevelyan reforms, angrily denouncing the Conservative government for what he called its ‘creeping politicisation of the Civil Service’. In government he has taken the opposite attitude. Blunkett has been a contemptuous opponent of those, like the former Cabinet secretary Lord Wilson, who stood up for the integrity of officials. The Home Secretary was the leading actor in the astonishing Cabinet meeting on 7 March 2002, when for the first time a Cabinet secretary came under open attack from ministers. ‘There has been talk of a Bill to protect civil servants from ministers,’ thundered Blunkett, as Lord Wilson took notes. ‘What we need is a Bill to protect ministers from civil servants.’

Blunkett himself seems not to comprehend the distinction between his public role of Home Secretary and his private interest. He repeatedly insisted that his relationship with Kimberly Quinn was a private matter, yet civil servants have been involved at every stage. Blunkett’s chief press officer flew to Italy to help him out when news of the affair broke; his principal private secretary seems to have been on hand when relations with Kimberly Quinn were broken off; and another civil servant was reportedly present to help the Home Secretary examine the visa application from Mrs Quinn’s nanny. We are told not to make too much of Mrs Quinn’s journeys by ministerial car. Perhaps not, but I know of a case when an army officer was severely disciplined after using his official car to give his elderly father a lift to hospital. An army officer would be instantly cashiered for abusing his spouse’s allowance, an offence Blunkett admits. The same applies in the Metropolitan Police, which Blunkett controls.

And yet there is only one response, and one answer, to this tragedy: compassion. David Blunkett, as he fights for his rights as a father, and unfaithful Kimberly Quinn are victims of the ambiguities of our time. They will never find their salvation in the murk of Westminster. Only the eternal truths will save them: family, self-knowledge, forgiveness and — above all — Christian love.