One of the hazards of writing a column about the press is that sooner or later you are bound to be cornered by an editor or journalist whom you have teased. I shall never forget the time I was harangued in the street by the charming wife of my old friend Peter Stothard. Sometimes one is cut in the lavatories of clubs by people whom one has quite forgotten having written about. A worse experience is waking up to find that an editor whom you have ragged has been appointed to the editorship of the paper for which you write.
Such was my fate when Sir Max Hastings was made editor of the London Evening Standard, for which I then worked. Max was not inclined to take a humorous view of the things I had written about him. He sacked me, and my friend Frank Johnson, editor of The Spectator, asked me to write this column. That was nearly nine years ago.
History sometimes repeats itself. I awoke on Tuesday morning to hear on the radio that Andrew Neil had been appointed chief executive of The Spectator. One or two readers may be aware that over the years I have lobbed the occasional rotten cabbage in the direction of Mr Neil, and he has lobbed them back. I recall that earlier this year we had a particularly intense exchange of missiles. Quite how, or why, it all began I can no longer remember, but one episode in our intermittent hostilities does stick in my mind.
It was a drowsy summer’s evening three or four years ago when the bees were buzzing and the butterflies dancing in the fading light. I may have had a glass of wine in my hand. And then the telephone rang. It was Mr Andrew Neil, greatly exercised by my suggesting in this column that Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, who employed him then as they do now, were contemplating selling the Scotsman. This suggestion had made Mr Neil very angry indeed. He threatened never to talk to me again. He informed me that he had issued a statement, and calmed nervous staff, whom he assured that the Scotsman was safe in his hands. Events would seem to suggest that Mr Neil was right, and my column wrong, though there are those who believe that it would have been better for the paper if it had been sold.
So now I suppose that this same Andrew Neil with whom I have traded insults is my lord and master. Or is he? Many will have been relieved to hear Mr Neil tell the world on the Today programme on Tuesday morning that he had no intention whatsoever of interfering in the editorial freedom of someone he called ‘B. Johnson’, known to the rest of the world as Boris. Ah, Boris. How many Scandinavian forests has he accounted for this past week! I could deliver a lecture at him, but I won’t for the moment. I might try to instil in him a few rudimentary rules for dealing with the press, but that can wait for another day. One thing that might be said in Boris’s favour is that I recently criticised him for agreeing to eat humble pie in Liverpool, and he bears no obvious ill will. Boris comes closer than most editors to believing in a free press.
The really good news — for Boris, a free press and, above all, for The Spectator — is that Michael Howard has sacked him. This is by far and away the best thing he has done since becoming Tory leader. Of course, I understand that Boris was about to give up being shadow minister of the arts in any case. He had seen the incompatibility of these particular two jobs. But Mr Howard has hastened the process, and now Boris is able to publish what he wants about the Tory front bench, and not be sent on ridiculous pilgrimages to Liverpool. He has been freed from his chains, and we will not forget Mr Neil’s assurance that he will remain free.
My own fate is by comparison a matter of very little importance. Naturally I sometimes wonder about the worth of press columns. There is a degree of corruption in all of them since writers who cheerfully point out the shortcomings of other publications and proprietors become understandably coy on the subject of their own. I have tried to resist this tendency in a small way, sometimes issuing a very mildly critical comment or two about the Daily Telegraph, which is now owned by Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, as is this magazine. As the first paper for which I worked, the Telegraph will always have a special place in my heart, but it would be foolish to pretend that it is absolutely perfect in every respect.
As it happens, Mr Neil has himself quite recently written a press column in my old Evening Standard berth, and a rather good one, in which he laid about various people with gusto, including myself. He must realise that for all their weaknesses columns on the press do serve a purpose. The media are powerful, journalists are powerful, and they should be written about. In an ideal world it would be better if the job were done by disinterested Martians but, since we do not inhabit that world, it is better to have someone doing it than no one at all. Of course, it may be that Mr Neil, or his proprietors, take a different view, in which case I shall be very happy — though with a doleful backward look — to pack up my stall, move across the road, and set it up somewhere else.
According to the Sun, the Duke of Edinburgh has forbidden the Queen to watch the forthcoming ITV series of I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! because one of the contestants is Paul Burrell, the former butler of Diana, Princess of Wales, and in royal eyes a blackguard. I wonder whether this is true. It is an amusing thought that the Queen should be a ‘big fan’ of this awful programme in which contestants have to survive in jungle conditions, and that she may be fighting Prince Philip for the remote control.
Apart from Mr Burrell, the celebs include Nancy Sorrell, a blonde ex-lapdancer, Sophie Anderton, a model who has advertised brassieres, and Janet Street-Porter, who generally advertises herself. Terrible people, you may say, but we must not fall into the habit of the posher papers, which mock the series and then end up by writing about it. One could get terribly depressed by the thought that we live in a country in which I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! makes such waves. But if the Queen really does enjoy it, perhaps we should try to see it as a harmless pastime.