The Will Self affair shouldn’t be allowed to fade into a media
legend without asking a basic question. Should he have been on the
election trail, let alone the Prime Minister’s plane in the first
And if he was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing, who was at
Will Self or Will Hutton?
In other words, what were the editor and senior executives at the
Observer doing in pitching him, of all people, into the fray. Doesn’t it
raise some pretty basic questions about how broadsheets cover the
election when colour writers are despatched willy nilly, on such vague
They are expected to produce entertaining copy for jaded readers in
difficult conditions, even if they have scant journalistic
qualifications for the task in hand.
It is not just an Observer trait. AA Gill, the Sunday Times columnist
has been at it too, reporting off-the-record comments apparently made to
him by John Prescott.
Only one problem: he’s been swatted into place since no note or tape
could be produced and Prescott said he was wrong. Does that spat enhance
the Sunday Times’ reputation for accuracy? Last Sunday he reported from
Major’s campaign trail in Cornwall: St Michael’s Mount was shimmering
like a mirage which pretty well sums up the value of his observations,
while his TV column, at which he often excels, was filled by another.
The Daily Telegraph has hired playwright David Hare: his columns sit
like interlopers on its pages.
In justifying Self’s departure, the Observer produced a series of
high-faluting arguments to cover its liberal reputation. Drug use was a
personal matter ’although we regard taking drugs on the Prime Minister’s
plane as seriously as anyone else’. But its basic point was that Self
had broken ’the key relationship of trust’ by repeatedly lying over the
It’s far simpler: the Observer sells itself as a serious paper. Will
Self is a casualty of its muddle and misjudgement. Worse, he used to
write a wickedly entertaining restaurant column and that is lost
I hope, once 1 May is past, that all media, including broadsheet
newspapers and the BBC, analyse how they covered the election and why
they often failed to connect with their audience. Coverage has been
surprisingly unsophisticated in the main, as broadsheets have opted for
mammoth supplements: not so different from gardeners who judge
vegetables on size. Never have so many journalists and good writers been
pitched senselessly into battle, producing thousands of words or
pre-prepared packages which have gone unread or unwatched.
The value of being succinct should be reassessed. Far better to focus
attention on a smaller number of commentators who command respect
because they know what they are talking about. Seasoned political
journalists ought to be cheering as they reoccupy the field.