Hack for good?

The media do not damn themselves, so I am speaking out of turn when I say that if you think rule by professional politicians is bad wait until journalist politicians take over. Johnson and Gove are the worst journalist politicians you can imagine: pundits who have prospered by treating public life as a game. Here is how they play it. 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.
Nick Cohen, Observer 26 June 2016

With print media going the way of steam radio, it is hardly surprising that becoming foreign secretary or transforming Britain’s schools or prisons would appeal slightly more than churning out lists of ten celebrities who have seen UFOs.*

And certainly Nick Cohen has a point. What made Boris Johnson a successful journalist was a charismatic turn of phrase and an eye for a story (if occasionally in the fictional sense). Michael Gove, meanwhile, moved swiftly up the ranks after joining the Times in 1996, espousing a conservative ideology that dovetailed nicely with Rupert Murdoch’s own.

The televisual Johnson always maintained a higher media profile, than Gove, BoJo starring on Have I Got News For You as opposed to the Gover’s brief run on a long-forgotten (until recently) Channel 4 satire show. And while David Cameron reportedly had to talk Gove into entering politics, Johnson’s biographer Sonia Purnell wrote that the failed 1997 Clwyd South candidate promised to give up his dream of becoming an MP on appointment as Spectator editor in 1999, only to then successfully seek to replace Michael Heseltine in Henley at the next election.

So while Johnson and Gove have different characters, with one seemingly more openly politically ambitious than the other, it is true that Nick Cohen does identify a key similarity. Both enjoyed roles as opinionated columnists, and seemed to take a broad brush approach to administration.

In Gove’s case it was taking over a government department and looking to transform it with a big idea, be it free schools or radical prison reform. With Johnson, as long as he had his headline splash – a cable car, a new bus, banning alcohol on public transport – that was enough for it to be a success in his eyes, even if it were practically unnecessary, shamefully expensive or widely ignored. (And his anger at even being questioned about this suggested that he treated policies like his columns; publication was the end of the road and only in extraordinary circumstances would he have to be answerable for what was no more than yesterday’s chip paper).

So, would we be better off if journalists stuck to the Fourth rather than Parliamentary Estate? Actually, plenty of them have enriched our political life.

First of all, there are those who deployed the skills they learned as journalists to enhance their effectiveness as politicians. Chris Mullin was known as a campaigning reporter before becoming an MP in 1987 and was able to make use of his enhanced profile and parliamentary privilege to push to correct injustices – most notably that of the Birmingham Six, among others.

It’s also the case that the public interest has been more than served by journalist-MPs like Mullin, Richard Crossman and even Gyles Brandreth revealing through diaries the otherwise hidden workings of our political life. Not all well-known politician-diarists were also journalists – Edwina Currie, Alan Clark, Tony Benn were not – but it seems the less self-serving, more objective journals have come from those whose pre-parliamentary career was in journalism.

It is not just in Britain. Al Gore moved from being a journalist to a become a US congressman and later vice-president who, it should not be forgotten, was well ahead of the game in having an important role in helping develop the internet and highlighting the danger of climate change: ‘Congressional oversight served as an extension of his past investigative reporting – with subpoena power,’ is one description. Admittedly, that comes from his official Senate profile, but it does underline the advantages for media men crossing over into elected office.

It does not always work, of course. Former journalists Gordon Brown, Michael Foot, Michael Ignatieff and indeed Gore himself do not seem to have had the greatest record as party leaders in several nations (perhaps Labour had lucky escapes in not electing Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper), but Winston Churchill didn’t do too badly.

Churchill, however, as a war correspondent, was never the kind of pundit that Gove and Johnson were. I’m perhaps not temperamentally suited to mounting any sort of defence for ‘Boris’ – in my first piece on this website I promoted the mayoralty candidature of (journalist) Christian Wolmar, in no small part as his approach was the opposite of Johnson’s. But at least the streak of self-promotion that is central to his punditry was put – if incidentally – at the service of turning a spotlight on London and now, presumably, the United Kingdom.

I find it much easier, though, to mount a defence of Gove, even if he has gone from being the man you love to hate to the man you just hate. It’s true his cynical dismissal of ‘experts’  during the EU referendum campaign echoed his time as Education Secretary when, according to educationalist Derek Gillard, ‘he seemed to go out of his way to offend’ teachers, and certainly was far from convinced that schoolmastering needed appropriate qualifications at all – nice provocative  stuff for a Monday op-ed, but not the best way to avoid being demoted.

However I was actually disappointed to see Gove go as Justice Secretary. Unlike his predecessor Chris Grayling (and perhaps some of his Labour forebears too), the Surrey Heath MP actually seemed to think that prisoner welfare was something more than just a ghastly PC woolly do-gooder obsession, saying – at a Tory conference mind you – ‘We should never define individuals by their worst moments.’

His reforms were still embryonic after only a year in his role, but the ‘big dramatic thought’ of the pundit-turned-legislator Gove at least presented the unusual spectacle of a minister in charge of prisons not trying to hop on the easy bandwagon of proving his lock ‘em up credentials.

Of course, Michael Gove’s previous profession might have had little do with his liberal approach but it continues the straight line throughout his career of alighting on a firm set of views that would make for both a trenchant column and radical legislative approach – be it on foreign policy, education, Europe or justice. Perhaps in his last government role, Gove’s single-minded disinclination to bow to the most politically expedient path was actually going to do some good. We’ll never know. Unless he writes a column about it.


Michael Gove and Boris Johnson

* They missed out Robbie Williams – standards at the Telegraph really are slipping.

One thought on “Hack for good?

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