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 New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo

2001-03-19