The medium column - Peter Wilby

The press once dedicated enormous space to the aristocracy. Now we have a different elite, covering

You can't beat posh sex. Nor can you beat a "cat fight" between two moderately well-known women. That is why the names of Boris Johnson, Anna Fazackerley, Cristina Odone and Julia Hobsbawm have recently been so prominent. They are the principal actors in two dramas which involve, in different senses, the alleged seduction of journalists. Other folk have played walk-on parts, including the editors of this magazine and the Spectator, as well as such exotic creatures as Petronella Wyatt and John Lloyd. You may think none of these people - except possibly Johnson - is of the smallest importance to our national life. You would be wrong.

The British press once dedicated enormous space to the aristocracy. An obscure baronet's wife or duke's daughter need only snag a dress to get a paragraph from the Mail's Nigel Dempster. It didn't matter that most readers had never heard of most of them. They were part of a social network that exercised genuine power and influence.

Now we have a different elite, equally interconnected and influential. It covers the worlds of press, TV, public relations, publishing and politics. In this milieu, as in the old aristocratic milieu, almost everybody knows everybody else, and they are frequently related by past love affairs, if not by blood or marriage. The social psychologist Stanley Milgram claimed any two Americans were connected through as few as six social acquaintances. He called it "the small-world phenomenon". In the new British metropolitan elite, I doubt you need as many as six love affairs to connect any two people to each other's beds.

The interest in Johnson is perhaps unsurprising, given his high TV profile. But the scale of it is remarkable all the same. After the News of the World revealed his "secret trysts" with Fazackerley (a journalist), the Independent on Sunday devoted a column to his sex appeal and a double-page spread to his apparent "sex addiction", while its diary seemed to allege that he is still, as it were, carrying on with the journalist Petronella Wyatt, a relationship that led to his departure from the Tory front bench.

The attention given to Hobsbawm is more remarkable. If Boris is more famous than his numerous relatives, Julia is certainly less famous than her father, Eric, a distinguished historian. She works in public relations, formerly with Sarah Macaulay, now the Chancellor's wife.

Last year she launched Editorial Intelligence (or e.i) "to foster good relations between PR and journalism". She persuaded Unilever, Weber Shandwick, Vodafone and others to part with at least £2,500 each, plus VAT, so that they could "network in a trusted environment" and receive "regular updated profiles" of "key columnists and commissioning editors". She appointed an advisory board of 34, including John Kampfner, NS editor, Matthew d'Ancona, Spectator editor, and John Lloyd, a former NS and Financial Times hack, now a big cheese at an Oxford institute for the study of journalism.

I doubt Hobsbawm's "data bank" contains anything an averagely intelligent person couldn't find in ten minutes on the web. But anything that helps PRs direct relevant information to active journalists - rather than sending it, as they usually do, to people who retired or emigrated a decade ago - will be welcomed by me. Though I contributed a small item to her quarterly newsletter, I wasn't asked to serve on her board. I would have declined simply because I never join anything, not out of distaste for her enterprise.

But in a brief Guardian note last month, Odone, late of this parish, found "an unpleasant odour" rising from e.i. Links to a PR firm should spell "professional suicide for a journalist"; Hobsbawm could institutionalise "a clique where who knows who will influence who writes what". This modest sally provoked, among other coverage, page leads in the Sunday Times (which played up the "cat-fight" angle) and Independent on Sunday. D'Ancona, Kampfner, Lloyd and others resigned from the advisory board. Melanie Phillips and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown - the equivalents of marchionesses in this new aristocracy - weighed in to the argument. I'd guess a row among the old aristocracy about the seating arrangements at a wedding would have been rather similar.

Odone is at least half right. Media and PR workers have similar backgrounds, hold similar views, live in similar houses and go to similar plays. They dine, socialise and sleep together. Journalists often move to PR in mid-career and sometimes back again; a few work simultaneously in both camps. I'd reckon at least 90 per cent of newspaper content has had some PR or spin-doctor input. And newspapers employ PRs to plant favourable stories in other papers.

It's all too cosy, to be sure, and Odone has done a public service by bringing the subject into the open. But Hobsbawm's little enterprise is a symptom of the disease, and not itself malignant. Odone needs guillotines and tumbrils if she wants to overthrow the new aristocracy.

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