‘Anything, as long as it’s controversial’


It’s not worth wasting too many words on the demise (for now, at least) of Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions. There is no shortage of coverage of his decision elsewhere, as the media continue to chronicle in loving detail the career of one of their own.

And that fact – that he is part of the media – is the root of many of our troubles, as Nick Cohen pointed out in the Observer on Sunday: ‘if you think rule by professional politicians is bad,’ he wrote, ‘wait until journalist politicians take over.’ He was aiming at Johnson and Michael Gove, the two leading Conservative figures in the Leave campaign, both of them professional columnists, and he noted the simplistic, black-and-white thinking that runs through their work:

They grab media attention by blaring out a big, dramatic thought. An institution is failing? Close it. A public figure blunders? Sack him. They move from journalism to politics, but carry on as before. When presented with a bureaucratic EU that sends us too many immigrants, they say the answer is simple, as media answers must be. Leave. Now. Then all will be well.

Inherent in this, Cohen observed, was a fear and dislike of those who know what they’re talking about. ‘People in this country have had enough of experts,’ as Gove put it during the referendum campaign.

All of which put me in mind of a little-remembered, but very fine, British novel. John Bowen’s Storyboard (Faber & Faber, 1960) is primarily a satire on the modern advertising industry, but it also features an obscure left-wing magazine titled The Radical. It’s the kind of publication where ‘whimsical advertisements for soda-water flanked critical articles on James Joyce or correspondence on the aftercare of discharged prisoners,’ and it’s long since past its heyday. It’s bought now, primarily out of habit, by aging readers, for whom ‘its arrival on the doormat every Friday was a reassurance that they still held the liberal opinions they knew they ought to hold, but which their way of living (if they allowed themselves to think about it) might seem to belie’.

But while its circulation may be sliding into insignificance, The Radical retains the illusion of influence because, as its assistant editor explains, its star writers have colonized the new world of television:

Tonight, What the Papers Say, Press Conference, PanoramaGallery; that sort of thing. They used to talk about radio dons, but now it’s television journalists – our sort of journalists anyway; you couldn’t expect the popular ones to be very articulate. Most of it’s BBC, but even the commercial companies like being serious for part of the time, provided it’s not peak time; they have to, I suppose, if they want to keep their licences. When it all started, one couldn’t tell whether they’d go for Culture or Current Events, but after the first six months Current Events won. Quite right too! Who wants to watch the Hallé playing popular classics, when they can have us talking about teenagers, or the H-bomb, or the traffic problem, or the Middle East, or just about anything really, as long as it’s controversial?

More than half-a-century on, and the phenomenon is still evident. On Wednesday evening, for example, Melanie Phillips was to be heard on Newsnight talking about what constituted – ‘for me’ – a red line in negotiations about Britain leaving the European Union, and no one seemed to think it unreasonable for a newspaper columnist to have such a high estimation of her own opinion that she had red lines. Indeed, that was why she’d been invited on to the show.

But Phillips looks something of an anachronism these days. Because that breed of commentator was superseded in the 1990s by a new generation of hacks with ambitions for a political career themselves. Boris Johnson of the Daily Telegraph and Michael Gove, formerly of The Times, shared stages in the referendum campaign with Daniel Hannan (Daily Telegraph) and Steve Hilton (Guardian), all peddling the one-solution-fits-all fantasy of the right-wing Eurosceptic.

On the other side could be seen the likes of Yvette Cooper (Independent), Ed Vaizey (Guardian) and Ed Balls (Financial Times). Worse still, in post-Blair politics, it’s not just been those at the front, the ones selling the ideas; it’s also been those behind the scenes, developing strategy: Andy Coulson (News of the World), Tom Baldwin (Times), Julian Glover (Guardian), Bob Roberts (Daily Mirror) – all drawing on the inspirational career of Alastair Campbell.

Amid all the talk over the last couple of decades of a new political class, stuffed full of former spads, the convergence of Westminster and Fleet Street has been less noted. But perhaps that began to change when Johnson sank his prime ministerial fantasy with an ill-advised and derided column in the Daily Telegraph on Monday. Maybe the age of columnists prancing on the political stage might be coming to an end; maybe now they’ll start being content to bore us on the small screen. And maybe one day we’ll get the Hallé Orchestra back.

One thought on “‘Anything, as long as it’s controversial’

  1. Pingback: A long month in politics | Lion & Unicorn

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.