As the former Chancellor of the Exchequer joins the ink trade, Aidan Smith offers some words of advice
As soon as a new book telling the story of Britain’s second most-popular newspaper arrived in our office there was a scramble for the index to search for friends and acquaintances from the ink trade and of course enemies. I’m pleased to say that I grabbed it first and pulled out a plum.
The yarn concerned Martin Clarke, now at the Daily Mail, the subject of Mail Men, but at the time in charge of The Scotsman, where he began to craft his reputation as a “truly brutal old school Fleet Street editor”. Staff would be “showered with expletives” on a daily basis but one hack – “a rock-hard soldier-turned-journalist” – was unimpressed by Clarke’s motivational techniques. He asked for a wee word; the two stepped outside. Any more of that and I’ll kill you, Clarke was told. Subsequently, if someone was lambasted for being a “monkey-c***” – and they were – it wasn’t our man.
Me, I won’t have a bad word or an extremely rude one said against Clarke; he gave me my job at The Scotsman. But I’m wondering how the industry’s newest editor would handle such a complaint made against him and deal with the rough and tumble of a newspaper office. Read all about it: George Osborne now runs London’s Evening Standard.
Admittedly you don’t hear stories like this any more. There’s not much rough and even less tumble. Hacks are too busy to stop for lunch, never mind spend it in the pub and come back full of bravado to challenge the editor on matters of vital ideology (Why was I made to do some work? Why were my expenses cut?). They’re also very keen on keeping their jobs because there aren’t that many to go round anymore. Nevertheless, this is George Osborne we’re talking about. You imagine he might be quite annoying.
“He looks permanently pink and facetious, as though life is one big public-school prank.” That was Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP, when he was in opposition to Osborne’s government. “Perpetually smirking,” Mullin wrote in his diaries. “As ever ... obnoxious.” Osborne isn’t Marmite. He’s from the original Notting Hill Tory set who like to dollop mayonnaise on everything, to the consternation of Nick Clegg’s wife. Hellman’s hath no fury like a woman scorned, especially when she comes from Spain and knows more about food. Osborne was perpetually squirting in those days, too, but charm has never oozed from him or even occasionally trickled.
Who needs that in the increasingly tough and often desperate world of newspapers? Well, I’m thinking back over my 16 editors and even the first one on the Dalkeith Advertiser – a body-double for John Cleese during Basil Fawlty’s most dangerous stunts, and just as deranged – possessed charm. So did the second who used to mix his metaphors (“We’re on the thin end of a slippery slope!”). The fourth, who was also the seventh, tried to sack me – both times – and was a smiling assassin. Even the editor who only lasted two and a half days had charm, albeit fleeting.
Osborne’s appointment has caused astonishment. He has no experience of newspapers, save for trying and failing to become a journalist a couple of times before being forced to settle for Chancellor of the Exchequer. But is it any more astonishing than a British DJ, Mark Dezzani, bidding to become ruler of the tiny self-declared Italian principality of Seborga? If Dezzani wins – and sometimes a man who’s been doing the same job for a long time simply needs a change of scene – then he’ll assume the title of “His Tremendousness”.
How can Osborne be an editor down in London and at the same time continue to properly serve as MP for Tatton in Cheshire? He might be thinking about quoting the recent case of the prince, the ski-resort nightclub and the topless model – Wills throwing some crazy shapes in Verbier, although the blonde was clothed at the time – but I’d advise against this. Journalism isn’t like dad-dancing and he’ll surely have to put in some hours. The current editor of the Mail clocks up 18 a day. Me, I quite often do 25.
Maybe if Osborne thinks he can continue with his various other jobs – five, we think – without there being any conflict of interest then he possesses an old-fashioned, romantic view of newspapers where editors are able to swan about a lot of the time. That would be fine as long as he signs the expenses old-fashionedly and romantically. In Swingin’ London of the 1960s on the newly-launched Sunday Times colour supplement, Philip Norman was one of the hip, young gunslingers. Norman asked for “thinking time” before committing an American assignment to print and was allowed to sail home first class on the QE2.
Norman is one of many journos who’ve plundered their experiences for fiction. I collect newspaper-set novels and would happily make my library available to Osborne (you never know when you’re going to need a job – crawl, crawl). In Peter Forster’s The Spike, the editor has a miserable reign, losing his wife, his mistress and his job to a man prepared to put more naked flesh on show. In Murray Sayle’s A Crooked Sixpence, the editor sucks up to the Establishment and protects the “public schoolboys with titles” who’ve got debutantes pregnant. In Gordon Williams’ The Upper Pleasure Garden, the ed declares: “Some people sell cabbages, some sell their c****, we sell papers. It ain’t art and it aint’t the community soul, it’s business.” Good luck, George – even you might need it.