Over here in the department of practical ethics and cultural corrections, it’s been a busy old week. Not because of the cabinet reshuffle, which left us unaffected, but because in preparation for this new assignment, a weekly column in the NS Back Pages, prejudices were set aside, a book of 307 pages was read in two sittings, and – unfashionable chore, this – a bunch of facts were checked. Some of them even turned out to be true.
The first thing to say about Michael Wolff, to whom those 307 pages (though not the facts) belong, is that he is by something close to cross-Atlantic consensus a brave reporter, scurrilous hack, and total scumbag. Of these qualities, only the last accords with my own experience of him. Some years ago I saw him at a dinner of media mavens and miscreants in downtown Manhattan, organised in honour of my then boss, Evgeny Lebedev.
Attendees included Piers Morgan, Emily Bell, formerly of the Guardian, Paul Steiger of ProPublica and Joanna Coles, then editor of US Marie Claire. Wolff, a few places away from me and not far from our host, sat in a funk with a face like a slapped badger for the whole evening. Maybe he was having a hard time of it at home; maybe someone had insulted him on the subway up to dinner, though I doubt it. Perhaps the placement met with his disapproval.
Even then, his ashen disposition was out of kilter with a most pleasant evening. I mean, it can’t be all bad, being given a free dinner, sat equidistant from me, our host and Piers. Afterwards, we exchanged a few pleasantries, or rather I tried to, and he responded with a few guffaws and insults, as his reputation suggested he would. I thought little of it, until not long after he surpassed himself by insulting our host on Twitter. Perhaps he thought the entrées were under-seasoned.
This was the second time we met. The first had been in the office of Roger Alton, then editor of the Independent, when I was a leader writer there. Wolff was in London to write a feature on David Cameron’s detoxification of the Tory party, and Roger asked me in to download some thoughts. Several of the half-decent ideas that were published in his ensuing piece were mine, pinched without credit. So – in the interest of full disclosure – to scumbag we might add journalistic burglar.
Wolff’s book Fire and Fury is riveting. It is crammed full of detail and excitement, and has the Aristotelian virtue of combining elements of plot and character superbly. Parts of it are, however, inaccurate. Constant spelling errors are not forgivable, but the blame lies with the lazy and ineffective publishers. For errors of fact, though, Wolff deserves scorn.
Wilbur Ross was commerce nominee, not labor secretary. Mike Berman, who worked for Walter Mondale, breakfasted at the Four Seasons – not Mark Berman of the Washington Post. Wolff claims Trump didn’t know who John Boehner was, long after the two had golfed together. He attributes reports of Trump’s alleged interest in prostitutes to CNN; in fact, it was BuzzFeed that published the relevant dossier. Dick Armey was never House speaker. Early on, Wolff quotes long chunks of a conversation between the late Roger Ailes of Fox News and Steve Bannon. It happened at a “Greenwich Village townhouse”. Why leave out that the house belonged to the author?
Wolff of course gives an unparalleled insight into a dysfunctional White House under America’s most unlikely president.
For all the book’s revelations, however, in an era in which we are vulnerable to fake news, only a rigorous, public attachment to absolute truth and unimpeachable sourcing can save hacks from the accusation they have made the facts fit their prejudices, rather than the other way round. It may seem pompous to insist on proper sourcing, and I’m conscious I write this as a BBC man; but only by an unflinching devotion to getting things right can a reporter earn trust. That takes time, whereas it can vanish in an instant.
Some journalists thrive through a permanent stance of opposition and hatred towards their subject matter. This is quite different from an enlightened scepticism that weighs evidence. Wolff runs the risk of undermining his own brave and commendable efforts in securing access to the White House every time he errs. And he errs constantly.
Trump, often talked of as the first post-truth president, is capable of insults himself, and has spewed a few towards Wolff since publication. Maybe he and his bilious biographer have more in common than either would like to admit. On the evidence of this book, perhaps they deserve each other.
Amol Rajan is the BBC’s media editor
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief