Diary – 17 September 2015

With four days to go until the result of Labour’s leadership election, a call from the Sunday Times. Would I like to write a piece, along the lines of the opening chapter of my 1980s novel A Very British Coup, about the first 100 days of a Corbyn government? Anything up to 3,000 words, he says. I am sceptical that the sense of humour of the censors at Murdoch HQ will stretch to the prospect of a Corbyn government, however fanciful. Especially since any such government is likely to be interested in breaking up the concentration of media ownership. What they are really looking for, I suspect, is tale of

Press night

Sam Mendes once said there is no such thing as the history of British theatre, only the history of British press nights. That observation takes us closer to understanding the taboo that constrains journalists from reviewing the opening performance of a West End play. A dozen or so previews take place before the critics are invited in for a star-studded gala, or ‘press night’, which is fixed by the producer to make the show appear in its most seductive light. Newspapers are usually wary of censorship in any form, so their assent to this convention must be considered a great anomaly. The vanity of the lead actor is a significant

Let’s pay for the BBC content we use

What follows is a proposal for reducing the BBC licence fee and improving the corporation’s output while saving the British newspaper industry. All that’s involved is a basic understanding of pricing psychology combined with a digital currency for micropayments. Under my proposals, half the licence fee would fund the BBC’s Reithian purpose; the other £60 could be paid direct to the BBC as now or, if you chose, paid to you as a digital currency (6,000 Beebcoins). People could buy additional Beebcoins, which could be spent on BBC or competitor content — including content from newspapers. Notionally the BBC would lose out; in practice they would gain revenue, as they

Martin Vander Weyer

Do Nikkei and the FT really share the same journalistic values?

It’s nearly 30 years since I worked in Japan, but I still have a few words of the language and a certain idea of how the place worked. The role of the business press, for example, was to trumpet export successes of Japanese corporations, and not to report shenanigans in which securities firms boosted prices of selected shares by pushing them to housewife investors, to generate campaign funds for favoured politicians. So I’m curious how the Financial Times will fare under its new owner Nikkei, the very Japanese media group that has paid £844 million to acquire the world’s most prestigious business title. Has the culture changed since my day?

Dear Sirs and Madams

Those who write letters and send them by post are a dying breed. I was fortunate to have served as a newspaper columnist and received a great many. Often eloquent, sometimes humorous, their breadth and depth of experience was wonderful. With the exception of letters that were racist or completely mad, I tried to answer every one of them. If a reader took the trouble to write to me, it was the least I could do to send him or her a personal reply. There was the occasional correspondent from London, but most lived in the country or in provincial towns or cities. Most were Conservatives and many were lifelong

Your problems solved | 25 June 2015

Q. My partner, a leading political commentator on a national newspaper, recently agreed to shave off his hair at the suggestion of his editor, in order to write and illustrate a feature piece on the charms of baldness. The timing, at the height of the summer season, could of course not be more embarrassing. He is due to attend a dinner at your magazine in the next few days. Mary, how do I explain this horror to anyone we meet before it grows back — if it ever does? — J.G., London A. It seems likely that your partner may have been nursing a secret urge to upstage you. Now

On the cusp

‘A stalker who dressed a pillow “mannequin” in his ex’s nurse’s uniform, then sent her a picture, has been told he is “on the cusp” of jail,’ reported the Scottish edition of the Daily Star. ‘Sheriff Alastair Carmichael told Mark Glass: “I don’t think you understand just how serious this is. You are on the cusp of a custodial sentence.” ’ He’s not the only one on the cusp. Idris Elba is ‘on the cusp of landing the Holy Grail of film-star roles, James Bond,’ reported the Daily Telegraph in a splendidly mixed metaphor, as though the Holy Grail were a kind of giant marlin to land, and a marlin with

Diary – 25 June 2015

My husband says I only write books in order to have a launch party. Not so. I also write books in order to give the author speech at the party. To this end, I hired a wild warehouse under the Westway flyover. Faced with a stream of emails from PAs asking things like whether vegan canapés would be served, and a direct call from financier Peter Soros asking whether 7 p.m. to midnight meant dinner or ‘cocktail prolongé’, I replied that it was BYOB — buy your own burgers. The great, the good, the bad, the ugly and the US ambassador streamed in to drink my wine out of plastic beakers.

Newspaper readers decide elections, not editors

How much influence will newspapers have in this election? Less than ever before in print, if circulation figures (above) are anything to go by. Yet paranoia remains. On certain days, newspapers do get excited and act like they’re trying to win the election. Today’s Sun digs up that infamous picture of Ed Miliband and urges readers to ‘Save our bacon‘, the Telegraph pictures Nicola Sturgeon with the headline ‘Nightmare on Downing Street‘, while the Mirror leads with ‘Major fail‘ on comments by the former Prime Minister on inequality. Meanwhile, the Times and Mail have followed the Independent and Evening Standard in putting their weight behind a Cameron-led government. The truth, of course,

The Conservatives are strategising regional media out of the grid – and it won’t help their cause

This has, I think we can all agree, been the most stage-managed election ever. Nobody on a soap box, no punches thrown, no bigoted women. Just a seamless marathon of national messaging that starts with the Today programme and ends with Newsnight. It is the regional media, however, that feels the iron grip of the parties’ media machines the most. We work where voters actually live. So how we are treated during political visits can be revealing. And Labour, most regional reporters seem to agree, seem to have chilled out. Ed Miliband and other senior Labour figures are freely giving up their time. We do get asked what sort of

Peter Oborne has performed a great public service today

Well, this is awkward. Peter Oborne is a friend and The Spectator shares a proprietor with The Daily Telegraph. So there is a danger that anything written in this space will seem craven or kowtowing. Nevertheless, Peter, late of this parish and now late of the Telegraph too, has performed a public service today by resigning his post as the Telegraph’s Chief Political Commentator. He is a man of great conviction and deep principle. Often mistaken, perhaps, but always magnificently worthwhile. His suggestion that the Telegraph has, shall we say, a rather too cosy relationship with some of its advertisers – and especially with HSBC – is not the kind of allegation made

Page 3 was harmless. Here’s why I’ll miss it

‘I for one would be sorry to see them go,’ wrote George Orwell. ‘They are a sort of saturnalia, a harmless rebellion against virtue.’ He was writing about the seaside postcards of Donald McGill in 1941, but his defence of them and their ‘enthusiastic indecency’ could equally well apply to Page 3. Orwell’s argument was that McGill’s caricatures of women, ‘with breasts or buttocks grossly over-emphasised’, gave expression to ‘the Sancho Panza view of life’. There’s a fat little squire in all of us, he thought, although few of us are brave enough to admit it. ‘He is the unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul,’ he

Existential threat: the birth of a cliché

In the endless game of word association that governs vocabulary, the current favourite as a partner of existential is threat. They make an odd couple. Max Hastings managed to get them into the Daily Mail the other day, writing that ‘although Islamic fanatics can cause us pain and grief, they pose no existential threat as did Hitler’s Germany’. A letter to the Times said that the Charlie terrorists’ ‘wicked ideology is an existential threat to Islam itself’. In those examples, the threat is to our existence or to the existence of Islam. But in this phrase from an article by Irwin Stelzer in the Sunday Times, ‘sincere believers in the

The Spectator at war: Censorship and mystification

From The Policy of Mystification, The Spectator, 5 December 1914: Let us say that we have not ourselves suffered from the Censorship at all. We have never submitted, and have never been asked to submit, any article to the Press Bureau. Such censorship as has been exercised in our columns has been the purely voluntary censorship which is exercised at all times, whether in war or in peace, by every editor who has any sense of public duty, and that remark, we believe, applies to the whole British Press, daily and weekly. We have, of course, constantly asked ourselves whether it would be wise on general grounds to make this

Should politicians grumble about awkward stories?

A lot of political types are very cross with the ‘biased media’ today. Ukip is currently the most aerated because some journalists ‘fabricated’ (which is today synonymous with ‘transcribed’) some remarks Nigel Farage made about whether or not restaurants are right to tell women to put napkins over themselves when breastfeeding. Number 10 is very angry with the BBC’s Norman Smith because he talked about the Road to Wigan Pier which is not an OK way of describing the public spending cuts still to come (but the IFS describing them as ‘grotesque’ and ‘colossal’ apparently is). Labour has been annoyed for months that journalists keep pointing out mistakes that Ed Miliband makes. Unusually,

Stig Abell’s diary: My days in court with the Sun

Soon after I joined the Sun as managing editor (among other things, I used to review novels for The Spectator), I read an interview with Keir Starmer, the outgoing head of the Crown Prosecution Service. What an unhealthy thing it would be, he said, if journalists had to consult with lawyers every time they pursued a story or asked a question. He was right — yet this is precisely what it is now like for most people in the business of trying to break stories in Britain. More journalists are on trial or facing prosecution here than in many banana republics around the world — as my newspaper knows to

What you’re missing now that you don’t read this in print

Liverpool airport is a curiously unreal place in the half-light before dawn on a cold November morning. Out across the Mersey at high tide, raindrops turn the silver to lead, and at the easyJet departures gate people in tracksuit bottoms brush against the occasional tweed and Remembrance Day poppy. Intending stag-weekenders, and the set who have a little place in the Pyrenees, coincide but do not mingle. A young woman is trying to buy rosé wine, and an elderly gent is trying to find a copy of that morning’s Times. The elderly gent is me, flying to Barcelona for the day for my sister’s 60th birthday lunch, to return that

Hugo Rifkind

You shouldn’t watch Dapper Laughs. But you really shouldn’t let the likes of me stop you

As you’ll know by now, I’m big on thinking the right things. Should a thought strike me that m’colleague Rod Liddle would not describe as ‘bien-pensant’, then I will of course shy away from it, in a blind panic, for fear that my pensée should be considered insufficiently bien. Right now, however, I’m having doubts about the catechism. The liberal elite may take away my badge. Presumptuous as it may be, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Spectator readers are not immediately familiar with the work of a comedian called Daniel O’Reilly, otherwise known as Dapper Laughs. He’s an internet phenomenon and — let’s not

The myth of the White Widow

Over the past year or so, a determined and fanatical Islamist has been waging a deadly and bloody war against the western world. This enemy is capable of moving unnoticed across continents and inflicting savage violence in each of them; inspires young Muslim men to become suicide bombers and die in their thousands. The enemy is particularly horrifying for being a traitor, born in Britain and a woman to boot. The ‘White Widow’, remember her? Samantha Lewthwaite from Aylesbury, usually described by our tabloid press as one of the most evil and powerful women alive. But is she really evil? Is she really even much of a threat? My contention

Bourbon from Bush, envy from Nixon… and running into Herbert Hoover: encounters with eight presidents

I feel a bit of a fraud writing about the ‘presidents I knew’, since journalists do not really get to know the great figures they interview or shake hands with. Indeed the relationship between journalist and great personage is about as false as any relationship can be, since each is trying to make use of the other. So in all likelihood my dreamed relationship with President Herbert Hoover — which began and ended in 1933 when I was aged 11 and only lasted for about a minute — came nearer to being a genuine human relationship than all the other journalistic ones later — which included Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower,