Heart of Darkness

Christopher Hitchens

  • Not Many Dead: Journal of a Year in Fleet Street by Nicholas Garland
    Hutchinson, 299 pp, £16.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 09 174449 0
  • A Slight Case of Libel: Meacher v. Trelford and Others by Alan Watkins
    Duckworth, 241 pp, £14.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 7156 2334 6

Alexander reminded me that Black once said that he was prepared to let his editors have a completely free hand except on one subject. He forbade attacks on American Presidents in general and President Reagan in particular.

Entry for 18 April 1986, Not Many Dead

The success of Michael Moore’s film about Roger Smith and General Motors has aroused an envious spirit of emulation in my breast. ‘Conrad and Me’, a script which I hone and burnish in slack moments, has the following points of mild interest. In the summer of 1985, I wrote an article for the Spectator about Ronald Reagan’s colon cancer. I said what I believed to be true: that Reagan and certain of his advisers had known of the deplorable state of his health before the 1984 Election, and had chosen to cover it up along with much else. I cited some reputable medical writers to this effect. I then allowed myself some very vulgar thoughts about how Reagan, his colon in disrepair, would manage America’s affairs in the critical years to come. I’m a bit contrite about those paragraphs now: they were ill-tempered and mean-spirited and Reagan’s astounding moral, mental and physical deliquescence between 1985 and 1988 does not make them any less so.

I paid scarcely any attention to a letter that the Spectator subsequently published. It was a frothing note from some Canadian business mogul named Black, who evidently hero-worshipped Ronald Reagan. In his closing sentences this entrepreneur speaks of buying up some English newspapers in order to put me, and others like me, out of a job. I had a brief cackle on the telephone with the Spectator’s then-editor and filed it away under ‘department of empty threats’.

I had much the same reaction after meeting a British financial writer in Washington. He had been in Toronto to interview Black about something, and had found him swirling around his own boardroom, beating the air with the offending copy of the Spectator. He repeated verbally the claim he had made in print – that his motive in acquiring a newspaper empire was to cleanse the business of people like me. My friend said the bloke had seemed quite serious, and laughingly added that if Black did acquire complete control of the Telegraph I would be held accountable.

Black went on to depose the decrepit Berry family entirely. Who cares, I thought. I never wanted to work for the Telegraph and they never looked like offering me a job anyway. Then I stopped writing for the Spectator in order to accept an offer from the New Statesman. At a Spectator garden party, in front of my brother and other witnesses, Conrad Black surged up to Charles Moore and congratulated him on firing me. Ever the gentleman, Moore courteously pointed out that there had been a few lines in the magazine thanking me for my services and even regretting my departure. Then Conrad Black bought the Spectator.

Well, I reflected, that’s still several jumps behind for the tycoon from the Dominions. Another sulphurous letter from Black, rebuking Charles Moore and repeating all the litany against myself, was later published in the Spectator and marked the first time, to my knowledge, that a proprietor had helped himself to his own correspondence column. Heigh ho, I thought, pretty soon Black will be announcing he is a poached egg and shouting for large slices of toast to be laid out in his sanctum whenever he feels the need of a lie-down.

Then, this year, when the Sunday Correspondent invited me to be its American contributor, Black, or someone with a North American accent calling himself Conrad Black, was on the telephone within hours of my being gazetted, barking that I was a disgrace to the profession and should not be employed. Indeed he made the very damaging accusation that I was ‘a mental case’. A few weeks later, he was boring a dinner table in Georgetown, and loudly announcing that I ought to be ‘exterminated’. (If Black reads this, or as he would probably prefer to say, if he has this ‘drawn to his attention’, he may care to know that more than one of the guests gave me separate but identical accounts of his conduct at this soirée. He evidently has a knack of inspiring affection and loyalty in his friends.) Now, I am merely a lone scribe living on my depleted wits. Do I have the right to take offence at this campaign of harassment and defamation from a multimillionaire? I think – I think – I shall let it go for now. If Mr Black wishes to know why I may choose to spare him, he will have to read to the end of this article, or pay someone else to read that far on his behalf.

These two books, both by working Fleet Streeters who go on at length about their own lives and times, furnish my excuse for this extended personal intro. In considering the newspaper racket these days, one comes up continually against people and publications who are on the run either from a proprietor or from the laws of libel. (I happen to be travelling in the opposite direction.) More than half of Nicholas Garland’s book is given over to an account of demoralisation and defection at the Telegraph, and the whole of Watkins’s effort is an education in the nightmare of the Queen’s Bench. Garland approaches the relationship between politics and journalism with an ignorance and a complacency that would almost be refreshing in anyone who wasn’t paid to provide a day-by-day comment on the news. At one point, discussing his closing days at the hellhole of the Telegraph, he records: ‘I interrupted to say that when I’d arrived on the paper I’d never done a political cartoon in my life.’ He hasn’t done one since, either. Will anyone claim that Garland has ever summarised a political moment or made a truly political observation? He has a fair line and can get a likeness very well indeed, and his Barry Mackenzie stuff was grand, but he is good enough to warn us early on that it was at Telegraph leader-writers’ meetings that he imbibed ‘most of what I knew about British politics’ and to amplify this later by saying:

How on earth does one make up one’s mind about anything? I tend to listen to other people’s assessments and rely on them to a great extent. There are few issues on which I feel very clear. I once made a list of all the political questions of the day: pay rises, education, Common Market, North Sea oil, inner cities, GLC and so on. I found that I was more or less completely ignorant about the whole lot, and had absolutely no opinion on any of them. All I had was a rough idea of who from the political or journalism world supported which side of any given issue. I also had a clearish idea of which politicians or commentators I usually agreed with. So I make up my mind about things by seeking out who said what about them.

Likable as this confession is no doubt intended to be, it describes not so much an open mind as an empty mind, and an empty mind in the world of consensus journalism will not stay vacant for long but be swiftly filled up – with platitude. We can take it that Garland has not given us his least favourite cartoons to illustrate this diary. On the first page is a direct comparison of Michael Heseltine with Sidney Carton (Eh?), with the stock quotation incomprehensibly appended as a caption. On page 127 we discover Pickwick’s old lady confronting the fat boy who wants to make her flesh creep. The old lady is drawn as Mrs Thatcher. The fat boy has the word ‘Voters’ emblazoned on his back. Why? What’s the point? Where’s the pith? Bernard Partridge could have done better in an old Punch on a good day. Low and Vicky could have done much better on a bad one. As Garland himself modestly records, of a conversation he had with Max Hastings’s secretary:

She said that she thought my cartoons were very good. ‘They’re so – political.’ She also admitted to being a paid-up member of the SDP and said cheerfully that I should keep up the good work. I don’t know how these shyly-stated remarks hung together, but the overall effect was unmistakable. She was being very nice.

If Alice will just pass that sick-bag of hers, we can decode these shyly-stated remarks more accurately. Max Hastings has or had a secretary who thinks that Garland’s cartoons are in tune with her preferred party: that is, they are expiring from insipidity. The question is: does this tell us anything about the ethos of the Independent?

The provisional answer appears to be no, which is a distinct relief. The Telegraph mavericks who founded the Independent wanted a recognisable cartoonist in order to appear both new and familiar – a pardonable desire on the part of a freshly-launched daily. What they got for their trouble was, on Garland’s own evidence, about eight months worth of Hamlet-like whinings and haverings about his pension prospects, and a courageous agreement to sign up when it looked as if there were no risks. They also got, by the sound of it, some fairly superior advice on layout and design, which is the field that Garland probably ought to have entered in the first place. Since he doesn’t include any samples of the alternative ‘dummy’ issues he discusses, we have only his turgid recollections to go by, but these do seem persuasive, and his advice must have contributed to that look and feel of authority which the paper possessed from its first day.

I was astonished to learn that many people consider this little book bitchy and indiscreet. Things must be very dull in Fleet Street if so. Garland is out to please everybody if he can, and is no more wounding or incisive in his prose than he is in his cartoons. The absurd figure of William Deedes, for example, is represented thus on page 47:

I have watched with a strange sort of gloom as the paper has wallowed and yawed and eventually driven herself on the rocks while Bill has grinned and joked at his desk.

And thus on page 79:

I got a charming letter from Bill today thanking me for the drawing I’d given him. He also amazed and pleased me by saying that in the last turbulent days he’d spent at the Telegraph he’d come to look upon my ‘reassuring figure as the one anchor in the harbour ...’ I was very touched.

As no doubt Mr Deedes now is to read that his steadfast cartoonist even shares the same taste in nautical cliché, as well as the same taste for having it both ways. It’s not possible to take offence at anything so innocuous, or rather, the offence is at the surreptitious, invertebrate quality of it all. Garland tries to tell a resentful and misleading story about my opinions on Ireland at one point, but lays off the bet by referring to me as ‘Hitch’ (which I like) and ‘Chris’ (which I don’t) to show that these things are all part of the general chummery.

If Garland has an opinion of Conrad Black, he keeps it to himself, preferring the safer ground of other people’s eavesdropped speech. Charles Moore describes Black at a Downing Street dinner where the guests later watched the Guards beat retreat: ‘Conrad Black’s act,’ Garland reports, ‘is apparently to be the one who knows everything, and he completely ruined the spectacle with an interminable monologue about the history of the uniforms and the origins of the ritual before them. Charles gave his spluttering laugh. And it was so boring and pointless.’ And Oliver Pritchett tells Alexander Chancellor a middling good yarn (‘Perry’ is Peregrine Worsthorne):

He said he’d just seen the most sinister man he’d ever clapped eyes on moving towards Perry’s office and was terribly afraid that the man’s intention was to murder poor Perry. He was troubled enough by the aspect of this nightmarish intruder to note details of his face and clothes in order to provide the police with a good description: ‘He was of South African appearance!’ Alexander, on hearing this alarming story, wondered whether under the circumstances they shouldn’t call on Perry to see how he was ... Perry was at his desk and greeted them. ‘Hello, come in! You’ll never guess who has just been to see me.’

‘Who?’

‘Conrad Black!’

Garland also supplies a vignette about Black’s way of doing business. Again, it is a colleague who finds he is doing the reporting:

‘It’s pathetic isn’t it?’ said Bernard. ‘I heard that at the board meeting where Max’s appointment was being discussed Lord H. strongly opposed the choice. After a while someone handed him a bit of paper which he read and fell silent. I think I know what was written on that paper.’ He scrawled something on a pad, tore off the page and handed it to me. On it he’d written ‘80 per cent’. The message to Hartwell was brutal: ‘We’ve got 80 per cent of this place – shut up.’

It’s a bit pat – the image of the maundering old peer getting the shaft from the unsentimental capitalists, but precisely because it’s such a stark metaphor for the evolution of Fleet Street and Tory Britain, it might be true.

The creation of newspapers like the Independent and the Correspondent has slightly lessened the historic journalist’s fear of the whims of the proprietor, whether Canadian like Beaverbrook, Thompson and Black, Australian-American like Murdoch, or berks or Burkes like most of the rest of them. The other two coercions, of the law of libel and the law of official secrecy, remain as strong as ever. Alan Watkins’s book is ostensibly an essay on the intimidating and harassing effects of the libel law. But its subtext concerns the hidden and persistent injuries of the class system as manifested in the person of one mediocre Labour politician.

I’m writing this in America, and trying to imagine how I could describe the Meacher case to an educated outsider. How to begin to describe our great country and its sensitivities? I remember, during the debate over the Central African Federation in the Sixties, that Lord Hailsham rose to defend his friend Iain Macleod from the deadly charge of being ‘too clever by half’. That jeer, issued by Lord Salisbury, had been amplified in the Lords by the yahoo figure of Angus Graham, Duke of Montrose, later to be a member of Ian Smith’s Cabinet. By way of rebuttal, Hailsham mentioned that he had once been bitten by the future Duke of Montrose while playing the Wall Game at Eton. Here was the future of both Rhodesias at stake, and here was our national level of allusion. Wasn’t it that sort of thing that brought modernising, technological Labourism to power in 1964?

Years later, towards the end of the Seventies, an old friend approached me with a look of faint puzzlement. Was it true, he inquired, that Michael Meacher had become a leader of the Labour Left? I replied that, without anyone having exactly willed this outcome, it did seem that Mr Meacher, formerly a desiccated Fabian, had evolved into Tony Benn’s spear-carrier. Well, said my friend (who, though of sound politics, was not a political man), it seemed jolly rum to him. While at Berkhamstead School, he had been visited with scorching castigations by Meacher, a prefect with a forbidding reputation. ‘I can still remember him saying: What you need, X, is a dose of pain. Yes, I think a dose of pain. And one of his toadies was there, echoing him like Mr Creakle and saying: Dose of pain.’ (Mr Meacher need not excite himself. I possess the relevant affidavits.) Watkins writes: ‘There was something of the disciplinarian school prefect about Mr Meacher: that stiff walk, that narrow mouth, those cold eyes, the spectacles!’ The Observer’s attorney, Richard Hartley QC, asked Meacher about damages: ‘That is what you are wanting? The money was to punish the Observer?’ And Meacher replied: ‘A modest punishment, yes. That is right. Because unless people are punished they will do it again. That is one of the bases of psychology.’

It’s impossible to summarise Meacher’s case against the Observer without lapsing into farce and bathos. The best guide for the perplexed is to be found in Monty Python’s sketch about the self-made Yorkshire businessmen all loafing around and vying with each other over the hardships of their upbringing. Meacher, in a tussle for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, gave the impression that his father had been a farm worker. He succeeded in getting several reporters to print this version of his provenance, and never asked them to correct it if it was untrue, which it was. That’s it. That’s the whole case, which cost almost £200,000 and occupied many a silk.

Like Wilde in his incautious pursuit of Queensberry, Meacher found himself having to disclose more about his person and his background than he might have liked, or anticipated. His father had inherited wealth, had owned land, had employed a maid, had sent the lad to a public school. But his father had also suffered a nervous breakdown, and had been compelled to retire to the family farm. In open court, Mr Meacher nearly blubbed, and referred to his father as ‘inadequate’.

Watkins has a knowledge of litigation and of Fleet Street, and takes us through it all without overmuch pedantry. Those who like his signature phrases – ‘the public stock of harmless pleasure’, ‘the gaiety of nations’, ‘the People’s Party’ – will not be disappointed. Those who found the old Beachcomber column funny will be slightly over-rewarded. Those who recognise the names of certain lawyers – Larry Grant, the firm of Seifert, Sedley and others associated with the National Council for Civil Liberties – will be shocked and depressed to find them on the prosecuting side of this authoritarian and bullying use of a repressive law. I have only one complaint. In describing one of these attorneys, a Ms Sarah Burton, Watkins writes on page 53: ‘She was a New York lady, small, dark, intense, of strong socialist convictions.’ And on page 100: ‘Miss Burton was small, very dark, in her late thirties, with a prominent and masterful nose and a discernible though not pronounced New York accent. She looked Middle Eastern.’ Yes, yes, Dr Watkins. Don’t waste the time of the court. I think we can all see what you are driving at.

On practically every page of both these books, somebody has lunch with Tony Howard. Part-emollient and part-irritant, part-innocent and part-conspirator, he nips to and fro like Osric ‘the water fly’, fixing a little here and undoing a bit there, always keeping the pot a-boil. Never averse to hearing a bit of bad news or bringing a touch of hot info, he possesses an inexhaustible, directionless energy. Can no one find this man a proper job?

‘With the rich and mighty, always a little patience.’ This old Spanish proverb still appears to hold as much as ever. In dealing with newspaper proprietors, it is essential to know a great deal about vagary and conceit. In considering any resort to the majesty of the law, it is necessary either to be already rich or (in the case of the libel lottery) plain avaricious as well as rash and vain. In analysing the rise of politically ambitious boys, it still helps to have in mind the diagram of who bit whom in the formative years. In estimating the character of the British and their press (even though Aneurin Bevan once said of Fleet Street and censorship and patronage that there was ‘no need to muzzle sheep’), one must have an ear for the rhythms of social nuance and for the class system as crudely summarised in the marketing notion of the A, B and C reader. It’s small wonder that Thatcher’s version of sado-monetarism has lasted so long and enjoyed such a fair wind from the public prints. Honestly, what a profession. What a country.