Save Us From Journalist Politicians

I strongly suspect that the world would be a much better place if we journalists were never allowed to go into politics
Tim Ireland - PA Images via Getty Images

I strongly suspect that the world would be a much better place if we journalists were never allowed to go into politics. (Although I suppose that, if pressed, I might make an exception for Winston Churchill.)

We suffer from an alarming tendency to believe in simple answers. We prize making an impact over getting things right, and an off-the-cuff opinion over a considered judgement.

As the American journalist Andrew Ferguson put it many years ago: ‘Journalism is a character defect... It is a life lived at a safe remove: standing off to one side of the parade as it passes, noting its flaws, offering glib and unworkable suggestions for its improvement. Every journalist must know that this is not, really, how a serious-minded person would choose to spend his days.’

Ouch. A good journalist might know how to ask the right questions, but a good politician knows how to find the right answers. There’s a big difference.

Exhibit One: Toby Young, former provocateur extraordinaire, a man so proud of his ability to get up people’s noses that he wrote a book called ‘How To Lose Friends And Alienate People’. It was later made into a film, but it demonstrated, as Young continued to do for many years, an unusual knack for being both offensive and wrong.

If that’s how you get your kicks, fine. But as Young has belatedly discovered, it becomes a bit of a problem if you then try to reinvent yourself as a serious educational reformer with ideas that deserve to be listened to by policy-makers. What seemed clever when you were in the losing friends business risks backfiring when you start trying to win allies.

So I’m afraid I have little sympathy now that he has had to resign as a member of the board of the higher education regulator, the Office for Students. As a puerile wordsmith, he can comment till he’s blue in the face about women’s body shapes (while watching Prime Minister’s Questions in 2012, he tweeted: ‘Serious cleavage behind Ed Miliband’s head. Anyone know who it belongs to?’)

He can also, if he insists, be crassly offensive about people who don’t share his superior intellect: ‘If Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels, the Government will have to repeal the Equalities Act, because any exam that isn’t “accessible” to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be “elitist”.’ But he shouldn’t be surprised if some people take such comments as suggesting that he may not be the ideal person to sit on the board of an education regulator.

Let’s not obsess too much about Toby Young. Exhibits Two and Three: the Terrible Twins, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. Both of them former journalists (Gove at the BBC and The Times; Johnson at The Times, the Daily Telegraph, and The Spectator), both of them with a marked talent for bad judgement and a preference for the short-term over the long-term. Definitely not a good advertisement for the journalist-politician brand.

Of course, there are exceptions. There always are. Whatever you think of his, er, whacky views on climate change, no one could argue that Nigel Lawson (another former editor of The Spectator) wasn’t a serious politician in his time as Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. Likewise Ed Balls (former Financial Times leader writer), notwithstanding his decision to reinvent himself on Strictly Come Dancing.

Michael Foot was a first-rate journalist (editor of the Evening Standard at the age of 28) but not such a success as leader of the Labour party; Bill Deedes, on the other hand, seems to have made a pretty good fist of being both a Cabinet minister (1962-64) under Harold Macmillan and editor of the Daily Telegraph (1974-86).

Norman Fowler (formerly of The Times) is now Speaker of the House of Lords, so he’s done all right; Ben Bradshaw (BBC) served as culture secretary under Gordon Brown; and Ruth Davidson (also BBC) is leader of the Scottish Conservatives and increasingly spoken of as a future party leader, so she’s not done too badly either.

Overall, however, the record is not encouraging for journalists with political ambitions. Much better to stick to asking questions rather than trying to answer them, and ― as Toby Young has shown ― indulge our talent for losing friends rather than try to win allies.

Oh, and a final thought: I feel much the same way about celebrity-politicians. I suspect I need hardly mention the current occupant of the White House, but I’d also harbour grave doubts if Oprah Winfrey decided to try her hand at politics. Being good on TV is not the same as being good at running a country.

Nor is being good at running a business. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, please note.


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