Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

The secret life of the leader writer

The latest series of Andrew Rawnsley’s ‘Leader Conference’ on Radio 4 starts tonight…keenly awaited obviously. But having been on the programme a couple of times – though not, funnily, since I did a piece for this magazine about the difficulty a woman has in getting her oar in across the masculine timbre of Danny Finkelstein et al – perhaps I should disabuse you that this admirable series actually replicates what happens in a leader conference. It’s very good, as everything my old friend Andrew does, but just not quite the same as the thing itself. This, I may say, is something of a specialist subject of mine, on account of leader writing being my bread and butter and having done it for different papers. (Ahem, nothing I say should be taken as the opinion of the paper for which I work…)

Anyway, the theory is that you argue every issue from first principles – what do we feel about ‘The Cuts To Government Spending’ sort of thing. Now sometimes that happens, and you have an interesting discussion in which everyone lays down exactly where they’re coming from. But it’s not always that way. In fact, nearly every subject under the sun you’ll have covered already, so what happens sometimes is that you’ll operate in shorthand. As in: “Tube strike….let’s do the cost to business this time, plus maybe reforms to the threshold for strike votes. Maybe touch on the mayor? OK, just asking.”  “Ukraine…see it’s spreading to X. Righty-ho, as before.” “The Nigerian girls who were kidnapped…there’s a big march today”. “Eh? Which girls? Oh the Boko Haram ones. Grim, yep, girls education, got you.” “Third…Harry and Cressida? Make it light and sympathetic? Heh, heh. But of course!” That wouldn’t, I grant you, work well on radio.

Indeed it’s rare that an entirely new subject comes up, though sometimes it does – cyber-crime say, for which you go off to the specialist reporter and try to thrash the thing out with him, not being an expert yourself.

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