Wednesday, May 17, 2006

My Top 10.....Political Journalists

I thought long and hard about this one. At least three of the people on this list are people I worked closely alongside in the Lobby and doubtless some will think that's all a bit incestuous. However most of my nominations either retired before my time, worked in fields of political journalism far removed from my own, or are sadly no longer with us.

The one thing they all have in common is that they were never seduced into becoming mouthpieces for the government of the day, or dependent on them for stories. That is one way of doing political journalism, and it can be a richly rewarding one for those who practice it. But it is not mine.

1. Hugo Young. Without question in my view, the greatest political commentator of the past 40 years and a great loss not only to the profession but also to British public life. His column on the death of Dr David Kelly, written shortly before his own death, will stick in my memory for ever. Cutting to the real core of the tragedy in a way Lord Hutton never managed, he said that Kelly's death illustrated "the dynamic that is unleashed when the Prime Minister's sainted reputation becomes the core value his country has to defend." He commanded public opinion in a way no other commentator has managed in my lifetime, and I genuinely believe that, had he lived, the Blair administration would by now have been consigned to the history books.

2. Anthony Bevins. Most of his best work was done by the time I joined the Lobby, but as the inaugural political editor of the Independent he helped shape a newspaper-of-record which, for a time, filled the gap in the market left by Murdoch's dumbing-down of The Times. Is justifiably remembered for asking Mrs Thatcher a killer question about the NHS, namely whether she had ever used it. It was sad that he spent his final years working for a crap paper like the Express.

3. John Cole. What more can be said? Virtually created the role of BBC political editor in its current reporter-cum-pundit format but never forgot that the reporting role ultimately came first. In 1990, Mrs Thatcher said she would "fight on and fight to win" after being forced into a second leadership ballot against Michael Heseltine. Cole duly reported her line but said he was keeping 2pc of his mind open to the possibility that she would in fact throw in the towel. She did.

4. David Hencke. In my opinion the best reporter of his generation, political or otherwise. Secured the Neil Hamilton scoop which seriously damaged John Major's Tories, then showed his even-handedness by uncovering the Peter Mandelson home loan affair. Had Tom Baldwin been able to follow Hencke's example and use his considerable talents for mischief-making against both parties instead of allowing himself to become a tool of Alastair Campbell, he too would be up there.

5. Alan Watkins. I grew up with Watkins' peerless Observer column and a large part of my fascination with politics and politicians came from him. I would guess that, in common with Trollope and Roy Jenkins, he saw politics as essentially the interplay of personalities seeking preferment rather than as a battle of ideas, a worldview which was brilliantly reflected in his writing. Was once absurdly sued by Michael Meacher after questioning the left-winger's working-class credentials.

6. Peter Oborne. One of the great iconoclasts of political journalism, Oborne is often regarded as some sort of Tory mirror-image of Campbell, about whom he wrote a memorable biography. But don't be fooled - the bucolic Old Etonian may be a right-winger, but his career in journalism to date shows he is nobody's poodle. Most rate the Campbell biog as his masterpiece, but I would nominate his pamphlet on the Government's hypocritical dealings with Robert Mugabe.

7. Elinor Goodman. I never really got on with Elinor but it was impossible not to admire her refusal to get sucked into the New Labour propaganda machine, especially as a woman of the centre-left. Her contributions to No 10 press conferences and lobby briefings were memorably waspish and her reporting incisive. A shame she never got the BBC job - she'd have done it with far more brio than Robin Oakley and far more objectivity than Andy Marr.

8. Andrew Roth. A one-off who carved his own unique niche in the profession, Roth is included on account of his exhaustive profiles of MPs which, for decades, have been an essential research tool. Also writes most of the obits of obscure former MPs which appear in the Guardian, ensuring some sort of memorial for those whom the slings and arrows of political fortune have left behind. One of two regional lobby men on my list, Roth was also Pol Ed of the Manchester Evening News.

9. Andrew Rawnsley. A slightly reluctant nomination, as in his closeness to New Labour he has on occasions come very close to crossing the line between journalism and propaganda. But there is no-one to rival the sheer elegance of his writing and he edges out Don Macintyre as the must-read chronicler of the Blair-Brown "project." His Observer column is to modern-day politics what Alan Watkins' was to the 70s and 80s - simply the best big picture summary of the week's events.

10. Ian Hernon. As well as being a fine reporter in his own right, this Glaswegian gets in for his amazing record in tutelary political journalism. In 80s and 90s, he ran a Lobby news agency that turned out numerous stars of the future, notably Joe Murphy (Evening Standard) and Roland Watson (The Times). Some claim they owed their success to Hernon's bizarre initiation rituals which allegedly involved consuming a half-pint or equivalent in every one of Westminster's 17 bars.

As to those big names I haven't can draw your own conclusions. Suffice to say that too many of the big beasts of political journalism over the past 10 years ended up by getting slightly too close to New Labour, and like Harry Evans, my definition of news is that it's what the Government wants covered up, not what it wants out in the open.

At the end of the day, what do Messrs Kavanagh, White and Marr care about my opinions? Probably not a lot. But I will say this. If I had been nominating the ten most courteous men in political journalism, all three would have been included.

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Ellee Seymour said...

A very, very good read. Don't you miss being in the thick of things at Westminster?

Paul Linford said..., not really Ellee to be honest!

Paul Linford said...

As one who's done both, blogging and journalism are two completely different disciplines, Barbara!

Paul Linford said...

Good point about the Dimblebys and Co - I should have made clear that the qualification was Lobby or Ex-Lobby, and neither J. Dimbleby, J. Paxman or J. Humphreys ever were (although J. Naughtie was.) Out of all those, however, I would probably only have Paxman on the list. I dislike Humphreys' interviewing style as I find his constant interruptions intrusive and frankly discourteous.

Anonymous said...

Paul Linford? Is this what you do these days? You always were a preposterously pompous (and talentless) man. Good to see in an ever-changing world, some things remain constant.

Paul Linford said...

Is that you there Alastair?

Anonymous said...

no, he doesn't know who you are

Paul Linford said...

Well, "preposterously pompous" and "talentless" are essentially matters of opinion (although you don't survive in this profession for 20 years by being talentless) but on the last point, I'm afraid you're wrong.

Why don't you say who you are? Anonymous posting is all very well when one is imparting sensitive information, but using the cloak of anonymity to make abusive comments is just cowardly.

Anonymous said...

Ah, but that's 20 years in the profession without ever really making it to the middle, let alone top, I'm afraid.

The reason I'm remaining anonymous is I couldn't bear the thought of renewing acquaintance with such a creep. Come to think of it, I can't think why I'm geting into a correspondence with you. Let's stop it here, shall we?

Paul Linford said...

Well, I didn't start it, and I'd be quite happy to stop it here were it not for the fact that you keep making such offensive (and ill-informed) observations.

It all depends how you define reaching the "top" of the profession. When I started out in journalism, my only ambition was to work in the Lobby, and I managed that, for nine years. For personal reasons which are hinted at in my profile section, I then decided to go and do something different and I don't regret that decision, especially as there are still people prepared to pay me good money to write columns for them!

Paul Linford said...

Further to the above...on a personal level I'm genuinely sorry you evidently feel the way you do about me. Realistically, journalism is the kind of profession where you are going to make enemies and I have reluctantly come to accept this. But for what it's worth, I never set out to do so and I am genuinely sorry I appear to have made one of you - whoever you are.

Anonymous said...

Can I just say - Millwall Forever

Anonymous said...

I can attest you were highly professional - and well known to be by your colleagues. Like many in our work, if I may say so, you could rub people up the wrong way. I agree - let's out this limelight-shy blogger. All the best. Peter

Anonymous said...

BTW, in writing the above, my sole contrib, I now realise there's more than one Anonymous.

Paul Linford said...

Yes, there is, and it's hard to keep track of them all, especially when they contradict eachother!

Grateful for your comments though.

Dirk N said...

What about Polly Toynbee?