Journalists: who the hell do they think they are?

Thank God for Benji Fry. Soon, if he has his way, he will buy and destroy the Groucho Club as we know it. This does not mean that he will demolish the Soho joint with a crane and wrecking ball - though from the way the media are carrying on, the Groucho under Fry will fare about as well as the statues of Buddha under the Taliban.

No, all Fry wants to do is brush up the club's image by opening its doors to more exciting individuals than the crusty present members.

Admittedly, one could argue that even if Fry were to wage a turban-clad jihad against the insalubrious premises that have drawn the capital's hacks to Dean Street since 1984, it would be no bad thing: this is no gem of architectural design, as is the Reform Club, or triumph of interior decorating, as is the cheerfully vulgar Home House. Nor does the Groucho boast truly grand literary associations or ancient traditions as does, say, the Garrick.

So why all the fuss about the planned takeover of this boho hole in the wall? Because the Groucho is the shrine to a self-regarding breed that fights for its patch with tooth and claw. This is the favoured watering hole of complacent media operators - those hacks, producers, directors and camera-friendly authors, historians and poets who think of themselves as the new Masters of the Universe. Where they were once merely the medium through which the real movers and shakers - politicians, artists, industrialists - communicated their message, today the self-regarding hacks think they themselves are the message. Everyone had better pay attention - and, to this end, the hacks peddle news (from gossip to obituaries) about their own. Ordinary England must gaze on, in puzzled wonder, as the feuds between Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, Esther Rantzen and Anne Robinson, and the deaths of Auberon Waugh and John Diamond fill newspapers, radio, television and films.

The hack's move from humble satellite to resplendent sun was a 1980s phenomenon. Until then, with a few Waughian exceptions, journalists were an inky-fingered, nicotine-stained bunch who drank too much and bored everyone too loudly to be invited into a proper home. I remember being talked out of writing for Cherwell in my first year at Oxford by a friend who warned that "no one will invite you to their parties if you do". Yet, only a few years later, the scions of the great and the good - the progeny of James Goldsmith, Viscount Ridley and Michael Heseltine - had chosen journalism as their profession. Suddenly, the seedy pen-pushers were as "it" as those black-polo-necked intellectuals who posed at cafes on the Rive Gauche.

It all went to the journos' heads. And in their small incestuous world, where Salman sits next to Rosie who is schmoozing Simon who is air kissing Mariella, everyone obliged, keeping egos inflated with byline photographs, flattering profiles and megabuck contracts. The founders of the Groucho cleverly capitalised on this elevation of the hack from pariah to perfect company. They realised that where before, the all-inclusive Fleet Street pub such as El Vino was good enough for the press pack, today's media folk wanted something exclusive, insulated - where nothing would interfere with the sound of their own voices or cast any shadow over their image.

This insulation, which the Groucho props up, is dangerous. When journalists take themselves and each other too seriously, they pat each other on the back rather than egg each other on to rake the muck; when they're dazzled by their own greatness, they are blind to others' flaws. In this way, the press pack, once a mighty power for change in the land, has become a self-congratulatory clique that seeks nothing so much as more of the same attention, salary and perks.

So go ahead, Benji Fry. Get those media folk out of their seedy haunt. Give them a rude awakening. And remind them that a hack is just a hack.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.