Comment is free – and pointless

Can anyone give a good reason why ministers should bother reading commentary in newspapers?

"What did you think of the cuttings?" a senior staffer in the Lib Dems asked on Monday, after the Sheffield conference. Ashamed that I only delve into whatever I fancy reading online, I started trying to justify myself by asking whether there was any point.

Then it dawned on me. Often commentators are the most tangible form of feedback that we in politics get. But why should we bother?

Why do we care about the opinion of Ann Treneman from the Times, Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail or Polly Toynbee from the Guardian? Does their opinion ever change? Does it change any of us? If the answers are "no" to all the above, then why do we want them to spend the equivalent of, say, £70 a day – based on an hourly rate of a cabinet salary – reading all this opinion?

Take the example of a friend who is now a minister. I asked him recently how he was dealing with the media onslaught about the Lib Dems. He explained that he quickly cancelled the doorstep of paper waiting on his desk each morning. He asked instead to receive only the most important ones from his private office. On inquiring how much his set of cuttings cost, he was told it was £5,000 per annum. That, in total, is over half a million pounds for all members of government.

I asked some of my Labour friends (yes, Lib Dems do still have them) whether they read the papers when they were in government. Some did, but by the end many didn't bother.

One former cabinet member explained that if the article was important enough it would find them. Another described to me how one secretary of state went in the opposite direction and became a virtual press officer, trying to respond to everything in the cuttings rather than dealing with the main business at hand.

Suzanne Moore wrote this brilliant critique of the strange world where Jamie Oliver and other chefs are more trusted to run public policy than trained teachers or elected politicians. But I suppose that the same could be asked of the columnists. Are they elected? No. Do they study the subject at hand endlessly? Some do, like Nick Timmins of the Financial Times, but most are generalists, just like the politicians.

Ringing in my ears are the usual journalists' claims that they speak for "popular public opinion". But we have much more rigorous and scientific ways of finding that out. While I'm firmly against the use of polls to govern, extensive polling would cost less than the £500,000 per annum of getting cuttings to ministers. Meanwhile, nearly every paper is being read by a much smaller and ever-decreasing proportion of the population.

So, what do you think? Should ministers read the commentary? What would you do if you were there?

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If there’s no booze or naked women, what’s the point of being a footballer?

Peter Crouch came out with one of the wittiest football lines. When asked what he thought he would have been but for football, he replied: “A virgin.”

At a professional league ground near you, the following conversation will be taking place. After an excellent morning training session, in which the players all worked hard, and didn’t wind up the assistant coach they all hate, or cut the crotch out of the new trousers belonging to the reserve goalie, the captain or some senior player will go into the manager’s office.

“Hi, gaffer. Just thought I’d let you know that we’ve booked the Salvation Hall. They’ll leave the table-tennis tables in place, so we’ll probably have a few games, as it’s the players’ Christmas party, OK?”

“FECKING CHRISTMAS PARTY!? I TOLD YOU NO CHRISTMAS PARTIES THIS YEAR. NOT AFTER LAST YEAR. GERROUT . . .”

So the captain has to cancel the booking – which was actually at the Salvation Go Go Gentlemen’s Club on the high street, plus the Saucy Sporty Strippers, who specialise in naked table tennis.

One of the attractions for youths, when they dream of being a footballer or a pop star, is not just imagining themselves number one in the Prem or number one in the hit parade, but all the girls who’ll be clambering for them. Young, thrusting politicians have similar fantasies. Alas, it doesn’t always work out.

Today, we have all these foreign managers and foreign players coming here, not pinching our women (they’re too busy for that), but bringing foreign customs about diet and drink and no sex at half-time. Rotters, ruining the simple pleasures of our brave British lads which they’ve enjoyed for over a century.

The tabloids recently went all pious when poor old Wayne Rooney was seen standing around drinking till the early hours at the England team hotel after their win over Scotland. He’d apparently been invited to a wedding that happened to be going on there. What I can’t understand is: why join a wedding party for total strangers? Nothing more boring than someone else’s wedding. Why didn’t he stay in the bar and get smashed?

Even odder was the behaviour of two other England stars, Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson. They made a 220-mile round trip from their hotel in Hertfordshire to visit a strip club, For Your Eyes Only, in Bournemouth. Bournemouth! Don’t they have naked women in Herts? I thought one of the points of having all these millions – and a vast office staff employed by your agent – is that anything you want gets fixed for you. Why couldn’t dancing girls have been shuttled into another hotel down the road? Or even to the lads’ own hotel, dressed as French maids?

In the years when I travelled with the Spurs team, it was quite common in provincial towns, after a Saturday game, for players to pick up girls at a local club and share them out.

Like top pop stars, top clubs have fixers who can sort out most problems, and pleasures, as well as smart solicitors and willing police superintendents to clear up the mess afterwards.

The England players had a night off, so they weren’t breaking any rules, even though they were going to play Spain 48 hours later. It sounds like off-the-cuff, spontaneous, home-made fun. In Wayne’s case, he probably thought he was doing good, being approachable, as England captain.

Quite why the other two went to Bournemouth was eventually revealed by one of the tabloids. It is Lallana’s home town. He obviously said to Jordan Henderson, “Hey Hendo, I know a cool club. They always look after me. Quick, jump into my Bentley . . .”

They spent only two hours at the club. Henderson drank water. Lallana had a beer. Don’t call that much of a night out.

In the days of Jimmy Greaves, Tony Adams, Roy Keane, or Gazza in his pomp, they’d have been paralytic. It was common for players to arrive for training still drunk, not having been to bed.

Peter Crouch, the former England player, 6ft 7in, now on the fringes at Stoke, came out with one of the wittiest football lines. When asked what he thought he would have been but for football, he replied: “A virgin.”

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage