We all have tricks of speech. A friend claims mine is to say that “we must move on rapidly”. From what exactly I’ve never been told but, if he says I say it, I’m sure he’s right.
At any rate, I once slipped it into one of my pieces on this site, expecting that he would read it and spot the reference. I remember writing the phrase though not the article itself. That doesn’t matter – but a point arising from it may, since it touches on journalism, politics, the civil service and the way we live now.
I’m not going to beat myself up for slipping an in-joke into a piece. All the same, I shouldn’t, strictly speaking, have done it (either then or, I’m afraid, in other articles later). Journalists shouldn’t write for a reader; they should write for the readers – in this case, the generality of those who dip into or dig deeper into ConservativeHome each day.
Here’s the point. Journalists are sometimes told, or tell each other, that they must “speak the truth to power”. And doing so is certainly a good thing. But it should be a consequence of what we do, not the aim – because we’re not writing for an amorphous blob called “power”. That’s not what we’re employed to do. We’re paid to write for real, living, individual readers.
I admit that part of me kicks against this view. The archetype of the journalist as hero, fearlessly exposing the faults of those in power, has lived long and dies hard: indeed, it doesn’t seem to be dying at all (among journalists, anyway). The search for the first campaigning journalist can stretch back a long way. Who was it?
Perhaps Benjamin Harris – whose cause, though, was anti-Catholicism, not one that most wish to follow? When did the idea of the journalist as Clark Kent, imbued with mysterious powers, take off (among journalists, as I say)? Was it at the time of the Pentagon Papers? Is that why so much British journalism has a rough, levelling, transatlatlantic feel about it?
Or am I overlooking our own parallel, homegrown campaigning – most notably, the Sunday Times‘ exposure of the settlement negotiations for children damaged by Thalidomide? You can see how the idea that journalists somehow address power crept in. For at more or less the same time, the reporting of two Washington Post journalists helped to bring down an American president.
The story became film in All the President’s Men having previously been a book, and the mass of films featuring journalists as heros, or sometimes anti-heroes, is too many to list – returning full circle recently in The Post. The effect of film on our culture is so great, and now so familiar, that we sometimes forget it’s there at all.
In London Fields, Martin Amis describes a character walking through a London street “lit by her own personal cinematographer”. The lights aren’t real: Amis is saying something about the way film has changed the way we behave – literally project ourselves. The echoes of scenes we’ve seen on the silver screen help to shape how we think, speak and act.
But the more this self-dramatisation grows, the more self-awareness can shrink – and the sense of proportion that comes with it, especially amidst our post-news cycle 27/7 social media culture. Alan Bennett once wrote that history is “just one f**cking thing after another”, but surely can’t have expected it to speed up so quickly.
It isn’t just journalists who are tempted to believe that their mission is to “speak the truth to power”. Ivan Rogers was appointed Britain’s Permanent Representative to the European Union under David Cameron and resigned under Theresa May – unhappy with Government policy.
“I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power,” he said in a leaving message to his colleagues. Now, he wasn’t altogether wrong. Ministers are indeed sometimes muddled. And their arguments can be ill-founded, largely because of government by press release.
To what degree politicians are to blame or journalists at fault for the culture David Willetts describes on this site today I leave for later. Either way, the civil service didn’t like Brexit very much, at least in its upper echelons. For what it’s worth, I think it was wrong to do so. But it was right collectively to conclude, as it surely did, that no clear plan was in place after the referendum vote.
Other factors have been at work. The aftermath of “expenses” saw a further decline in the reputation of politicians and the rise of a new assertiveness among regulators: so, for example, the inquiry into Rishi Sunak’s declarations of interest is a foray by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards into territory occupied by the Independent Adviser on the Ministerial Code.
That two such advisers resigned under Boris Johnson, and that Dominic Cummings viewed the civil service as ripe for cultural revolution, won’t have been forgotten among senior civil servants. Add changing workplace expectations – some for the better and some not – to the mix, and you have a volatile cocktail, as the Dominic Raab affair has proved.
If journalists continue to think our duty is to speak truth to power, rather than to our readers, it may be that the latter are willing to put up with it. You can see why – for if British journalism can be irresponsible, now more than ever in the age of Substack, it is also irrepressible: never have politicians been scrutinised so fiercely.
The civil service is another matter. Taxpayers don’t fund journalism (at least most of it). But they pay for the civil service. They may come to find that combination of disregard for elected representatives and changing work practices unpalatable – especially if a culture of self-dramatisation, with whistleblowing an early resort rather than the last, is added to the mix.
If civil servants become Sir Ivans on speed, as it were – if they come to believe that their main responsibility is speaking to power rather than doing their job – “power” will ultimately reform them out of recognition. You may respond that real power rests with the civil service. But even the mandarins can’t take on both Government and Opposition at once.
Perhaps I’m somehow resistant to the idea of speaking truth to power because I haven’t done enough of it myself. Maybe, maybe not: over the years, ConHome has urged the ousting of a Tory leader and the sacking of two Party Chairman. That may not have been telling the truth to power but at least it was telling it something.
Mind you, I’ve a certain sympathy for politicians: after all, I once was one, and know which of the two lines of work is harder – outside war zones, at least. But there I go, forgetting that the only group of people more unpopular than journalists, when I last looked, were politicians. Time to move on rapidly.