A normal working week, with the difference that my first novel, Going East, is coming out. Most of my spare time is devoted to promoting the book – but it’s business as usual at the paper.
I have a long conversation with Colin Brown, our political editor, about the BBC’s row with the Government. I have been told that Alastair Campbell is growling in private that his foes at the Beeb “had better get themselves a bloody good lawyer”. A line for my column, at least.
At our Thursday comment meeting, Dominic Lawson [editor] says that he’s commissioned a piece by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor which will criticise MPs for wasting parliamentary time on fox-hunting while ignoring “alarming” developments in embryo research. This should provide a strong news line – which leads us conveniently into the morning news conference.
To the Spectator’s summer party in the evening, where there is much talk among Tory politicians of the BBC row and the right strategy for dealing with it. Stand well back, I’d have thought.
A good write-up in the Daily Mail which calls Going East a “powerful thriller” that “goes like a train”. Friday is always a hectic day for a Sunday newspaper: conferences in the morning and evening, in which the general running order of the newspaper gets settled (though not in stone).
Dominic and I have a quick lunch. Then it’s time to get stuck into the column. My normal procedure is to complete a draft by close of play on Friday and then make amendments first thing Saturday. There’s always something in the newspapers or on the Today programme that needs to be incorporated.
After some calls, a fairly clear picture emerges: Blair is, I am told, privately bullish about the discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and – more surprising – convinced now that there was, after all, a link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida. The Government has tended to downplay the connection, but the source for this shift in Blair’s views is strong, so I stitch the line in.
The day begins well at 6.30am with a review of Going East in The Scotsman by Allan Massie who says – to my amazement – that it is “a better novel” than The Bonfire of the Vanities.
As ever, Saturday goes in a blur. Barry White has died and we get Emily Bearn, who interviewed the soul legend brilliantly in 1999, to write a piece about her memories of the encounter. Emily has already contributed two pieces to the Review section and is on a day off, but – trouper that she is – files 1,100 words of immaculate prose by 3.30pm.
After our morning conference, Dominic talks through the main leading article with me. Blair has admitted that the Government, fixated by targets, has become a “bit too technocratic”. Well, yes. But what is the Prime Minister going to do about it? The paper has run some strong news stories in this area, so it’s ideal terrain for an editorial. This needs to be signed off before 2.30pm. At 3.30pm, the paper’s executives huddle round the back bench for front page conference. It’s clear that the BBC row is going to provide the splash, with the Murphy-O’Connor line below the fold. The suicide bomb in Moscow provides a shocking picture with accompanying story.
Dominic decides the paper should run a short leader for later editions on the BBC governors and why they should not rush to judgement (as, we have discovered, they seem determined to do) when they meet on Sunday.
Then it’s headlines for the front page, and a run-through of the whole paper to decide changes for later in the evening. The first of the other papers to arrive is normally The Observer, with most of the others following at around 9pm.
Another working week begins with Tuesday’s morning news conference at which the reporting team pitch the lines they propose to pursue over the next few days. Saturday may seem a distant prospect, but it’s vital to get the hares running immediately. This is followed by the main heads of department conference at which each section editor runs through plans for the week.
A letter arrives from the Prime Minister thanking me for the copy of the book which he says he’ll take on holiday with him.
In the evening, Going East is launched at the Whitechapel Gallery. I’m delighted by the turn-out: family, friends and colleagues. Maurice Saatchi drives all the way from Westminster to buy a copy and get it signed, before heading back to the Lords to vote. Peter Stothard, my boss when I was at The Times, is there, too. Andrew Pierce, another old Times colleague, interviews me for his LBC diary of the week. There is much talk about Blair’s note – and much ribbing about the Tom Wolfe comparison in Saturday’s Scotsman. “Will you be getting a white suit?” colleagues want to know.
I spend the morning at the Millennium Commission. The meetings are normally chaired by Tessa Jowell, but today the sports minister, Richard Caborn – definitely a man to watch – stands in. There are some important decisions to be made. Being a commissioner has been an education, as well as a privilege – a completely different world to journalism.
Back at Canary Wharf by 1.30pm. A message to call a good Tory source. You’re only as good as your last column and, once again, it’s time to start thinking about this week’s piece.