Magazine article The Spectator

Scrape on, Guardian! Disregard Your Mr Young

Magazine article The Spectator

Scrape on, Guardian! Disregard Your Mr Young

Article excerpt

Hugo Young of the Guardian is no mere columnist. He inhabits the journalistic equivalent of Mount Olympus, and has very little intercourse with ordinary mortals. As a writer of books he has disposed of the pretensions of Lady Thatcher and, most recently, chronicled the failures of our political class to place Britain in the bosom of Europe, where Mr Young is certain we belong. As chairman of the Scott Trust he presides over those two high-minded newspapers, the Guardian and the Observer, a grander figure even than Mr Alan Rusbridger, who is merely their editor-in-chief. It would be difficult to think of a more morally elevated creature than Mr Young. Whenever I see him shimmering in the distance, I inwardly quail as I used to do whenever a fearsome bishop visited our school.

Imagine my surprise then, on returning from foreign parts, to be presented with a recent column by the great man. It was written in the aftermath of Peter Mandelson's resignation. Readers will recall that it was the Guardian which broke the story that the Prince of Darkness had borrowed a few bob from Geoffrey Robinson, and was therefore responsible for his downfall. However, there was no trace of self-congratulation in Mr Young's piece, and certainly no crowing. High up on the slopes he commands, he seemed hardly to notice the trivial figure of Mr Mandelson, observing only that the embarrassed minister was no Titan. The great columnist was more exercised by the `triumph of a new and cleansing morality' in the media. `The media's demand for transparency,' wrote Mr Young, `coupled with their horror for the imperfection it exposes, produces a savage cocktail of righteousness. The characters of public people are scraped bare, in the name of standards that often lack all proportion.'

These are sentiments that many might agree with. I would put it slightly differently myself. Editors had better be sure that they live up to the standards they expect of Mr Mandelson. Journalists who fiddle their expenses should not persecute politicians who take cash for asking questions. But shouldn't the press, provided that it is clean, expose crimes and misdemeanours? That is exactly what Mr Young's paper has been doing these past few years. My only complaint has been that it has sometimes lacked proportion and that some of its allegations have depended too much on the evidence of a proven liar, Mohamed Al Fayed. Yet here we have Mr Young, the deity who has presided over these revelations, apparently distancing himself from this kind of thing. Although he concedes that `taking cash for questions is poison', he embraces moral evasion - the title, incidentally, of an excellent pamphlet, critical of the media, written by David Selbourne for the Centre for Policy Studies. Mr Young is commendably clear. `Give me, likewise, non-tellers of truth,' he writes. `This is a human flaw, but a political obligation.'

What are we to make of this apparent gulf between Mr Young's beliefs and the practices of his paper? What are Guardian journalists to make of it? There seem to be two possible explanations. Mr Young may quite simply have disliked his newspaper's hounding of crooked Tories. Somehow I doubt this. I rather think he enjoyed all that. Indeed, I seem to remember him writing about it in approving terms. No, it seems to me more likely that the great columnist may be guilty of double standards. …

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