"hey certainly never sought to turn their positions as public servants into an income stream for their journalism."
I was interested to hear Nicky Morgan, to my mind a principled Tory MP, call on Boris Johnson to decide if he is a politician or a journalist. I am neither a journalist nor a politician, but I see her point.
In my time, I have been invited to address political conferences and I am often asked to write, say, 500 words on issues such as Brexit and the Irish Border or CETA – the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. It’s then I realise why I am not cut out for either job when I find myself thinking there is no way that such issues can ever possibly be adequately addressed in 500 words. Maybe not even 50,000 words would do justice to either subject.
What is worse, in terms of writing for a newspaper or indeed delivering a political speech, there is the expectation that such issues should be communicated in ways that make for glib, headline-making phrases or that should get an audience on to their feet, applauding.
Fundamentally, the expectation is that complexity should be made simple, that often very serious subjects should be made sensational and compelling. The expectation always is that you should appeal to emotion, not intellect – heart not head. This approach is what I believe has got us into an awful lot of the difficulties as we now face the end of the Brexit negotiations.
I will put my hand up and say those journalist-Brexiteers such as Johnson – as well as Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan etc – are eminently better at writing readable copy than I am, and, indeed, at making better tub-thumping speeches. Making speeches or writing copy that is compelling is not, however, the same as being responsible or thinking through all the implications. Sometimes it’s about lulling the audience or reader into a false sense of security or panic.
These erstwhile journalists, long before June 23 2016, made a good living out of ridiculing the European Union. They had good sport writing about issues such as bendy bananas, cabbages, often evoking the spirit of the Second World War and of making their readers feel superior – always what a populist journalist should be about.
The point that I think Nicky was making is that in journalism – unlike in politics – it is not necessary to take responsibility for your rhetoric. Emotion sells papers and powers political careers. Facts are, by implication, boring – hence Gove’s attack on those supposedly dull souls who call themselves “experts.”
On the contrary, now more than ever, I take the view that facts – like eating your greens before you get to your pudding – are rather important. That is why I have set up End the Chaos. I want to get away from both politics and journalism. I want to set up a new forum where all that matters are the facts.
As a little girl, and even now, I read Sherlock Holmes and maybe that is why, as a transparency campaigner who has pushed for change both in financial services and in the charity sector long before I involved myself in Brexit, I have got results. “I make a point of avoiding prejudices and of following docilely where fact may lead me,” that great detective once said. On another occasion, Holmes observed: “It is a capital mistake to theorise in advance of the facts. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
These are not, I would deduce, rules that Johnson and his friends have ever followed in relation to Brexit. So much of that has been about raw, brazen appeals to emotion. I will admit it is clever and it taps into something that has always been quite unique to the British psyche. The problem is not always about practicality or what is in all our best interests – rather than the interest of the few. The truth is that, as history has repeatedly shown, we are at our best when we work together with other nations.
It’s true, of course, that in the past journalists have become fine politicians – Sir Winston Churchill, for instance, and Michael Foot was a former editor of the London Evening Standard – but when these men reached a certain level of seniority they recognised they could no longer chase after freelance work.
They put aside personal material gain for the national interest. And they got – in a way that I fear Johnson still doesn’t – that politics is fundamentally not about being an entertainer or chasing the limelight, which is what the kind of journalism he practices is to some extent about. They certainly never sought to turn their positions as public servants into an income stream for their journalism.
I make it a rule never to attack anyone in personal terms, and certainly never their families. Nor do I try to appeal to emotion. It might be boring but the facts, details, and realities matter to me. If I get it wrong I’m quick to say sorry. When it matters, when so much is at stake for our country, it should only be about facts.
As Mr. Johnson decides if he is a politician or a journalist, I shall continue to be judged purely as someone who deals in facts – the “simple, incontrovertible facts,” as Holmes called them.