Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Frustrated politicians?

Iain Dale posed the following very interesting question on his blog yesterday: Political journalists are merely frustrated politicians? Discuss.

There are several journalists-turned-politicians in the current House of Commons - Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls and Martin Linton to name but three. But so far as I am aware the only lobby hack during my time who successfully made the switch was Julie Kirkbride, formerly of the Daily Telegraph.

It took her a fair while to establish herself as a Tory MP, and I think this was in part down to a reluctance on the part of the Lobby to take seriously one of their former number.

By contrast, one who tried and failed to make the switch was Hugh Pym, who attempted to become a Liberal Democrat MP at the 2001 election and has now returned to journalism. On this evidence, the answer to Dale's question would appear at best inconclusive.

There were of course a number of lobby journalists who went off to become researchers or spin doctors, most famously Alastair Campbell but also the likes of Charles Lewington, Nick Wood and John Deans, who all became Tory press officers, Mark Davies (ex-BBC and Liverpool Echo) who became a government special adviser, and the late David Bamber of the Sunday Telegraph, who went to work for Labour MP Fraser Kemp.

Spin doctoring, though, is not the same as real politics. I don't doubt that Alastair Campbell was a powerful political figure, but would his colourful past have withstood the scrutiny of his former colleagues had he attempted to forge a political career in his own right? I doubt it.

Another reason why relatively few senior lobby journalists make the move from the Press Gallery to the green benches below is quite simply that they would be taking not only a huge drop in salary but also a huge drop in influence.

Senior Lobby hacks like Trevor Kavanagh who effectively become players in the political process have significantly more power than the average backbench MP, without all the attendant hassles.

For my part, though, I think the reason there is relatively little movement between the worlds of politics and political journalism is more fundamental - that the two disciplines demand a totally different mindset.

Throughout my own career, people have repeatedly asked me if I was interested in a political role. As I said in my interview with Paul Burgin last year, one reason I haven't is that there isn't a political party that comes close to reflecting my economically progressive yet socially conservative political views - and there isn’t ever likely to be.

But the biggest reason I've never seriously considered it - and I think this is probably true of many journalists - is that I could not dissemble in the way that politicians are required to.

Politicians need to be able, as CP Snow put it, "to send the old familiar phrases reverberating round." Like Roy Calvert in The Masters, I cannot do that without falling over with laughter.

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