No more gongs for hacks

Media - Dame Rebekah Wade? Sir Piers Morgan? Not very likely, reports Bill Hagerty

How down in the dumps some of the Fourth Estate's finest must have felt over the New Year. At this time, the honours list has often delivered to selected working journalists goodies more palatable even than roast goose and ripe Stilton. Just an assortment of letters - a K, perhaps, or an M, O or C prefacing a B and an E - but most acceptable, especially because they not only look good in the Who's Who entry, but sound delicious when used to make restaurant reservations.

But this year, hardly a crumb. Those employed at the sharp end of the newspaper business, the national dailies and Sundays, were almost completely ignored - and it was, I learn, no accident.

It seems that the Downing Street Santa Clauses who bestow these favours decided that honouring current editors, or any working journalists engaged in the political arena, was an aberration that must cease forthwith. Few of those working in the trade will question a decision that removes accusations of compromise from both parties. Publicly, at least, for as Peter McKay observed in his Daily Mail column: "I've known colleagues in the newspaper industry railing against 'the abuse of the honours system', while simultaneously dreaming of gongs for themselves."

It used to be so different, those dreamers will recall. Once a chap could expect a pat on the head and a tap on the shoulder for services rendered. At the height of Fleet Street's infatuation with Margaret Thatcher, our national newspapers contained more knights than King Arthur could muster at the round table on evenings when Camelot United were playing at home. These were knight editors, as opposed to knights errant or night editors, and had achieved nobility not by crusading, or even slaying a dragon or two, but by paying subservient homage to a damsel who was rarely in distress.

John Junor of the Sunday Express, the Sun's Larry Lamb and David English of the Daily Mail bent at both knees in adoration before bending again, only one knee required, to prevent the Queen having to stand on a stool when wielding her sword. Later, Nicholas Lloyd, the editor of a Daily Express that had already begun its soulless drift towards anonymity, also received a Tory knighthood.

All editors in situ, the lofty four were honoured for "services to journalism", which must have puzzled some who worked under the eccentric regime of Junor and the insipid incumbency of Lloyd. Lamb's reward was more for agreeing with the then prime minister, both in print and privately when she fluttered her eyelashes at him and sought his "advice", than for creating a dominant and hugely profitable tabloid.

The dubbing of English - the finest journalist of them all by the distance between Kensington and Canary Wharf - prompted the then opposition frontbencher Roy Hattersley to recall that this was the editor who splashed on a story alleging that British Leyland had a "slush fund" which it used to bribe its way into foreign motor markets. The tale was pure invention, and the man who told the original lie went to prison. The man who fell for and published it became a knight.

Hattersley, writing in Punch, went on to speculate that English might be the last editor for some time to do so and, with the exception of Lloyd, he was right. "Editors should not be in receipt of favours from party leaders," wrote Hattersley, and the present government appears sensibly to have been converted to his view on this subject. There have been not even whispers of knighthoods for editors since the 1997 election. Now, it seems, few journalists of any rank who are still pounding at their keyboards are to be recipients of New Year or Queen's Birthday handouts.

Quite right, too. Such awards scratch the backs of faithful cats that have purred even when a show of journalistic claw was in order. There can be no case for elevating hacks above their natural anti-establishment station while they are still involved in the trade. In politically sensitive areas, recognition of excellence above and beyond the call of duty should be recognised only after the farewell collection has been taken up and the money spent at the bar of the office boozer.

Which makes the one exception to the rule in the latest batch of honours hard to fathom. At the risk of further enraging those who objected to the recent NS profile of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, why was she singled out as the only working journalist on a national newspaper to be given so much as the time of day?

Alibhai-Brown was awarded an MBE - the lowliest in the range, but at least this year's model - for "services to journalism". She has been writing her Independent column for less than three years and, indeed, was a late entrant into the business. But the Prime Minister launched one of her books, she is a member of the Home Office Race Forum and, last year, was appointed research fellow of the Foreign Policy Centre. As an experienced adviser on race matters, she might well have been honoured for services to racial and cultural harmony. But where journalism is concerned, she appears no more deserving than Charlie Brown or the Gambols (and, while ruminating on cartoons, certainly less so than Bill Tidy, whose MBE isn't honour enough for this great non-political artist).

Whispers from Downing Street suggest that, in the future, some working journalists, those far from the political maelstrom, may receive the odd morsel from the honours banqueting table. Motoring correspondents, perhaps. Or astrologers, or fashion stylists and the like.

It would be a mistake. Ban them all. Dream on into retirement, ladies and gentlemen of the press. Which, the way things are in certain areas of the business, may be sooner than you think.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Dotcoms will rise again