I confess to conflicting feelings about Sir Christopher Meyer of the Press Complaints Commission, who has written a racy book about his experiences as a senior civil servant and ambassador in Washington. Being 92 and less active than a reporter ought to be, one has more time to sit and reflect on such things.In one mood, I regret the damage these memoirs are bound to do to trust in the higher reaches of Government. In another, I say to myself: “Well, if the Prime Minister on a visit to Washington says he prefers the company of his press secretary to his ambassador at a private dinner with the President, I would feel a certain resentment.”
Feelings run deep here. I have travelled the world enough to form an admiration for our modern ambassadors, who are a lot less stuffy than some newspapers make out; but the embassy has come down in the world.
Tony Blair is only one of many Prime Ministers who like to look prominent in the transaction of world affairs. They build up staffs for this purpose at No. 10, which makes the professional diplomatic world feel unwanted. If members of that staff then play grand over an embassy there is bound to be trouble. Oh yes, I can see how it all happened.
Serialised memoirs carry risks. Naturally, if your newspaper is paying thousands of pounds for the privilege, you pull out the juicy bits. I’ve done it myself.
I remember David Maxwell Fyfe, not a great Home Secretary, but one of the kindest men I have known in politics, who wrote some pretty innocent memoirs, which were serialised. That cost him a lot of friends.
At the time of writing it is unclear whether Meyer will keep his job as Lord Chief Justice of the Press. There are not many votes to be won by sacking him. It will look vindictive to a public which loves disclosure.
Not many people remember the origins of the Press Complaints Commission. Clem Attlee’s government of 1945-51 felt ill-used by the predominantly right-wing press, which made hay of its enormous post-war difficulties – some, but not all, self-inflicted. They countered by setting up commissions of investigation into the workings of the press.
From one of these, the Press Council emerged. Herbert Morrison, a talented politician, was keen on that.I remember getting slapped down by him in the Commons when I ventured to question the wisdom of it.
During the years I edited The Daily Telegraph, I made a point of accompanying any member of the staff charged with misconduct to its hearings. I did this not from any sense of duty, but because I found the proceedings vastly entertaining, particularly the questions from lay members of the council.
All human life was there, to paraphrase the pre-war News of the World advertising. At one point we were accused of misreporting a demonstration of women.
I went along and found that, exceptionally because of building repairs, the plaintiffs and defendants had to share the same waiting room. They were normally kept apart. The case in front of our own ran on a bit. Our chief accuser began to fidget.
Eventually she stepped up to me with a grim smile, saying: “Have you by any chance got a light?” I lit her cigarette for her and, to show solidarity, lit one of my own in a room devoid of ashtrays, which implied smoking was not welcome. Our reporter was acquitted.
So you thought the story that ran and ran after Charles parted from Diana ended when he married Camilla. I hope with all my heart you are right, but I have my doubts. A debate is about to open, I fancy, on whether Camilla should be Queen when Prince Charles succeeds. It is gathering force in the correspondence columns and, if it takes off, is something everyone has an opinion about.
The success of the couple in America and the Queen’s most natural wish to pass some of her travel overseas to her eldest son as she passes the age of 80, strengthen the chances of a public argument. How will it end? Probably by the sensible Camilla making it clear that she has no desire whatever to take on such a job.
Our village shop, which may God preserve, delivers my newspapers early. I enjoy seeing how different newspapers report the same story. We may be over-competitive, and I think we are, but we are wonderfully diverse; and lying in bed with a mug of tea comparing headlines is the high point of my day. I prefer it to the BBC’s Today programme because – being rather deaf in one ear – I find some women’s voices difficult to pick up.
This service by my village shop stronglyinfluences me in the present controversy about corner shops and supermarkets. My son, Jeremy, who has forgotten more about newspaper management than I shall ever know, once assured me that if every village shop closed down, the selling and delivery of newspapers was profitable enough to guarantee some successor.
I’m not convinced. It doesn’t happen in America.
You walk out for your newspaper. So I am highly protective of my village shop and implore my household to be supportive. I am, to be blunt, more apprehensive of Tesco’s winner-take- all policies than I am of Tony Blair’s ambitions.
I just wish his government did more to keep a balance. I’m not concerned only about newspapers. The village shop is often the post office and handles pensions. Well, no doubt the supermarkets will get round to that service; but will they pay for the pensioner’s taxi?