So much for good intentions. After three consecutive columns
inspired by President Clinton, I had resolved to give the middle-aged
lecher a rest this week. But the story still has PR legs. They belong to
Peter Preston, the Guardian’s former editor who hounded ex-Tory Minister
Neil Hamilton out of politics and Ian Greer out of British PR in the
brown envelopes affair.
In a recent Guardian column Mr Preston was sickened by the American
media’s treatment of Mr Clinton. He wrote: ’Why do they in every
question, every soundbite, seem so damnably eager? Why do they
perpetually recycle leaks - good, bad and lousy - of legal ’insiders’ as
though they were fact, not sometimes a vicious spin on reality?
Why ... are they arrayed alongside Republicans in the (Congressional)
Committee who wish to pour every word and every picture on to the great
disseminator of the net?’
I never noticed Mr Preston’s objections to soundbites, leaks or help
from Tory opponents when he made a dead set at Margaret Thatcher and
myself in the 1980s. It is a real turn up for the book for him to
blanch, in the Clinton context, at the ’dumping of everything in the
public domain, as a spectacle in embarrassment intended ... to make the
public change their minds’. He used to be mad keen on dumping every word
of mine into the public domain to embarrass the Government.
It would, however, be churlish not to welcome a sinner come to
But does his new sensitivity over Mr Clinton being stripped to his
underpants, as George Walden put it in the Evening Standard, herald a
sea change in British journalism - a recognition that, after the media
excesses of the John Major years in pursuing every obscure Tory MP to
his illicit bed and Mr Clinton’s humiliation, that the media’s demand on
both sides of the Atlantic for absolute transparency of public life is
as hypocritical as it is damaging?
The evidence is far from conclusive. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s
dramatic dumping of his wife for his mistress in an airport lounge
suggests they find it eminently commercial to expose the errant
politician. But Mr Cook’s remaining in office hints at a new restraint
at least in respect of Labour politicians. And there is astonishingly
little fuss from the media over the likely delay of freedom of
information legislation which they have sought for years.
Perhaps they are, indeed, growing up. At least Mr Preston has raised the
issue of whether the full monty approach to Government serves
democracy’s purpose. Let us hope that practising, rather than retired,
editors now explain how they propose to resolve the conflict between
their responsibilities to society and their need to sell newspapers and
attract radio and TV audiences. Tony Blair will be all ears, too, as his
conference speech showed.