Jan 2005 Journal

previous article:AJR appoints new Head of Media and Public Relations
next article:Frank Foley - the paper trail

The lesser and the greater Johnson

The Boris Johnson and David Blunkett 'scandals' have re-ignited the debate about how private the private life of public figures should be. Opinion seems to be split down the middle. Extreme libertarians say what politicians get up to in the privacy of their own - or their mistresses' - homes should be a taboo subject. Old-fashioned moralists argue that MPs who frame the laws that govern our lives ought themselves to live up to certain moral standards.

I tend to agree with the latter. I cannot accept that because society at large contains, say, 20 per cent of husbands who cheat on their wives, for Parliament to be really representative a fifth of all MPs should be adulterers. If Parliament were merely a sample of the public, hanging would still be on the statute book.

No, the House of Commons should be an elite - not of birth or wealth, but of character. I know this is a counsel of perfection, and that we are all subject to the ills that mortal flesh is heir to. Even so, someone who is not merely an MP, but a minister-in-waiting, can surely be expected to curb his addiction to the triple-headed bitch-goddess of wealth, power and sex.

But my proposal for a self-denying ordinance extends beyond politics to the media. I find it ludicrous that highly paid editors and journalists should be in a position to hound MPs over their expense accounts (or housing loans - as happened with Peter Mandelson) while they remain immune to public scrutiny. In any case, the media are now virtually an estate of the realm, as was proven by the BBC filling the oppositional vacuum over war in Iraq when the Conservatives supported Labour.

By happy coincidence, Boris Johnson straddles the narrowing gap between politics and the media - being both an MP and editor of The Spectator, guest columnist on the Sunday Telegraph, novelist and TV personality. With so many irons in the fire, he had to spread himself rather thinly and farm out some jobs to others. Thus it came about that the contentious editorial about Liverpool being hooked on self-pity - for which Boris Johnson had to apologise in public - wasn't actually penned by the Spectator editor.

Now The Spectator is one of the glories of English journalism, with roots going back to the accession of the Hannoverian dynasty and the age of Samuel Johnson. (Editing the AJR Journal, a mere 60-year-old stripling, I am understandably envious of this venerable rival publication.)

However, there is a downside to being intimately associated with a magazine of such antiquity - namely that one's own outlook becomes antiquated, and one still regrets the outcome of the American War of Independence (1776-83). From the lofty vantage point of the Spectator office, Boris Johnson and his political editor, Peter Oborne, view the 'Yanks' as a bunch of rough-hewn, gun-toting hillbillies and colonials, bereft of the refinement of public school-bred Englishmen.

The Conservative Party, with which The Spectator was traditionally as closely associated as The Statesman was with Labour, is an almost schizophrenic political animal. On the one hand, it had a Jewish leader two generations before any other party in Europe; on the other hand, it is so wedded to the past that 30 years ago a Tory MP was criticised by colleagues for wearing hush-puppies in the division lobby, and Michael Heseltine was looked at askance because he had bought his own furniture (instead of inheriting it from his patrician forebears).

I hope this explains why - sexual peccadilloes apart - Boris Johnson could be a reincarnation of his great namesake and fellow Tory Samuel.
Richard Grunberger

previous article:AJR appoints new Head of Media and Public Relations
next article:Frank Foley - the paper trail