Journalists make awful politicians

The late Peter Preston despaired of reporters and columnists who join political movements

Nick Cohen

I asked Peter Preston in 2015 if he thought journalists should belong to political parties. It was the morning after the British electorate had, in its bottomless wisdom, given David Cameron a majority. I was one click of the mouse away from launching the fightback by joining the Labour Party.

Preston sighed. He edited the Guardian in the 1980s, a time of extreme political passion, much like now. Ferocious rows between supporters and opponents of Tony Benn and the Social Democratic Party tore through the newsroom. Reporters and commentators weren’t just party members, paying their subscriptions and putting up posters at election time. They were close to becoming full-time politicians as they prepared to stand as candidates.

To the regret of everyone who knew him, Peter Preston died last month. He was an authentic liberal, and, naturally, he said he would never have told his staff they couldn’t join a political party or stand for Parliament. They were free to express their political views as they wished. Of course they were. But, and here a vehemence I had never heard before entered his voice, he hated it. Absolutely hated it. What was he meant to tell the readers? Should he insert at the bottom of a news report or column “X is a disciple of Tony Benn”? Or “Y is standing as an SDP candidate”? Or “Remember that Z will never admit that her cause is less than perfect”?

Chastened, I decided that the Labour Party would just have to manage without my services and returned to work. To Preston, it was obvious you cannot simultaneously be an honest journalist and a PR for a political movement. If you are plotting to become an MP — as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove did — or government press officers — as both newspaper and BBC staff have done — or to pump out the Labour Left line — as Owen Jones and Paul Mason do — then you are no longer a journalist.

Or so it seemed to Peter Preston and so it seems to me. Anyone else, however, may find it far from obviously wrong for journalists to moonlight as political activists.

Commentators should express their honest opinion. If your honest opinion is that Brexit must be pushed through whatever the cost, or that Corbyn represents the best hope of overdue change in Britain, why should you not defend the Right of the Tory party or Left of the Labour Party? The notion that journalism must always be a heroic struggle against “power” is both vainglorious and anti-democratic. For democracy to survive, parties need men and women who will explain and defend them. Pro-Brexit voices may be over-represented in the old newspapers, but they are under-represented everywhere else. The intelligentsia is all but unanimous in agreeing that Brexit is our generation’s Munich: an epic act of folly that betrays Britain’s best interests. In these circumstances, it is not necessarily corrupt for journalists to speak for the 17.4 million who voted for Leave.

What applies to the Brexit Right applies with greater force to the far Left. Only a handful of commentators back Corbyn and McDonnell. In academia’s arts departments, faux-revolutionaries raid the fancy dress box for revolutionary costumes that might impress their students. But serious left-wing economists, who might have provided a programme for power, have walked away from Corbyn, unnerved by the shambles they encountered. Most Labour MPs, intellectuals and think-tanks don’t believe a Corbyn government would be anything other than a disaster. Some members of the shadow cabinet agree. Like the Brexit Right, the Corbyn Left appears entitled to have journalists speak for it even if they too duck the tough questions, double standards and inconvenient facts.

You could go further. In all but a minority of serious newspapers, the opinion pages are directed by the prejudices of the editor. Notoriously, fashion magazines never say a word that might upset their advertisers, and glossy magazines give celebrities the power to vet and approve copy. And this is before we get to peer pressure, John Stuart Mill’s “social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression”, which makes writers conform to please their friends or Twitter followers or their version of polite society. Why is it worse to be the servant of a political faction than of an editor, advertiser or peer group?

In any case, there is something narcissistic about writers insisting that they must say what they believe regardless of the consequences. I fight for my own causes. They are not necessarily superior because they are not the causes of any political party with a hope of taking power. By what right do I and others say we must be true to ourselves, but not to the needs of a movement or the editorial direction of managers, or the demands of advertising departments? You only have to glance at social media to know the mass of people want their prejudices confirmed. Why not give them what they want, regardless of whether you agree with them?

The only defence of honest journalism I know is negative. Resisting outside pressure does not produce successful work. The results can be incoherent, poorly researched, badly written and egotistical. There are no guarantees or simple formulas for success. But I can guarantee that writers who succumb to pressure always fail.

In what passes for their consciences, everyone knows it, which is why propagandists never admit they are producing propaganda. I have yet to see a right-wing journalist declare an interest and say, “I am writing this because I’m desperate to become a Conservative MP.” Or supporters of Brexit or Corbyn say that they will always suppress their doubts for fear of undermining their cause. Magazines do not open with an explanatory note to readers saying that they have censored all copy that might offend advertisers or celebrity interviewees. Fleet Street columnists never confess in print that the editor has told them what to say. They know they would be confessing a shameful secret, which would destroy what authority they have.

People are starting to realise that journalists make terrible politicians. The glibness of media celebrities sways voters but destroys administrations. What Preston realised, but too few others have grasped, is that journalists who want to be politicians also make terrible journalists.

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