OPINION: Villains tend to hoodwink media

A columnist in the Wall Street Journal, Kimberley Strassel, has taken the media to task for not being quicker to realise that former governor of New York, Elliot Spitzer, who has resigned as the result of a prostitution scandal, had feet of clay.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

The signs of arrogance were always there, she says, and Spitzer was well known as a bully. The press turned a blind eye to his tactics when they should have been alerted by them not to take Spitzer entirely at face value.

This seems a bit harsh, given that the Wall Street scandals Spitzer uncovered in his time as New York City attorney general were the story, not the way he uncovered them. That said, she is on surer ground when going on to describe how 'he doled out scoops to favoured reporters who repaid him with allegiance'. She says: 'He knew that as financial journalism has become more competitive, breaking news can make a career.'

There is nothing new in rich and powerful people cultivating the media with a regular diet of gossip to deflect attention from their own activities. The master was of course Robert Maxwell, who was the primary source of gossip for one Sunday newspaper for years.

But that was not the reason the press were soft on Maxwell. For one thing, his cultivation of certain journalists was well known and did him no favours with the others. But more to the point, when one did get close to publishing something unsavoury about the old rogue, he would simply phone up the reporter's proprietor with a threat to expose the seamier side of the owner's private life in his own papers.

That usually did the trick. And if it didn't, then the threat of a massive libel action did, even though Maxwell's nefarious past was a matter of public record.

I think the real reason Maxwell survived as long as he did - and probably Spitzer too - was that they were winners and readers do not want them shot at. Careers like theirs gather huge momentum and when they are travelling at speed it is virtually impossible to stand in their way or criticise.

Indeed, any note of scepticism is not only lost in the general clamour of approval but is often actively resented by the readers. It seems we all need our heroes and for a time at least we all need to believe.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard 

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