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The columnist leaves the court
David Aaronovitch's departure from The Times raises questions (and only one of them is about fake leather jackets)
After the 6th championship things were beyond our control. Because it would have been suicidal at that point in their careers to bring back Pippen, Steve Kerr, Rodman, Ron Harper... Their market value was going to be too high individually; they weren't going to be worth the money they were going to get in the market.
— Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf in Episode 10 of The Last Dance
David ‘fake leather enthusiast’ Aaronovitch is not a basketball superstar; he’s a (soon-to-be ex-) Times columnist. If I were seeking a parallel in the NBA, he’d be someone relatively low in the draft who ended up part of a big-money franchise; he’s a “role player” — his purpose to commit professional fouls on the left, with a ‘reasonable’ look on his face the whole time, appealing to the ref for “the rules” to be followed.
One of the things I liked most about The Last Dance — the deeply flawed doc, which is nominally about the Chicago Bulls’ double three-peat championship-winning teams but ends up being about Jordan’s super-human pettiness — are the moments when players break down how they think about the game. It’s something that journalists and columnists don’t do honestly very much.
Being explicit about the tricks — dirty and otherwise — used to construct news stories and columns is generally considered a bit déclassé; the hack equivalent of betraying the Magic Circle by explaining illusions to non-magicians. But there are times when you can catch journalists and columnists in a valedictory mood and moved by a combination of ego and nostalgia to unpick their methods.
On ‘chortling’ Matt Chorley’s Times Radio show today, there was an hour-long special of the columnist panel segment featuring Aaronovitch and his comment section colleague Daniel Finkelstein (who is not leaving The Times). Reflecting on the duo’s first Times Radio appearance in 2020, Aaronovitch offered this monologue on ‘the culture war’:
I think part of the problem is: So big have been our economic problems and so big have been our international problems that we’ve found it easier to get entrenched in certain kinds of social issues, where people are able to take very strong positions that satisfy them that don’t actually require a vast amount of consideration or a vast amount of thought. It doesn’t mean anyone is wrong at any given time but I found it deeply frustrating — and find it increasingly frustrating — that you’ll have continuous debates about statues and traditions from one side, and then what’s a kind of proper way of speaking or slamming people for not having a proper way of speaking from the other. … most of us get caught in no man’s land while these shells are kind of landing with most of us there; most of the population is wandering around in culture wars no man’s land while these sides kill each other. It takes up far too much attention and it takes up far too much time.
He’s offered a version of this argument before (Hardly anyone cares about the culture wars, The Times, May 26 2021) but it’s odd coming from someone who has spent 18 years at a newspaper whose news and comment sections vibrate daily with culture war ‘excitement’. Even more so when you remember that he is a former presenter of Radio 4’s culture war-stoking, ‘we’re just asking questions’ debate colosseum, The Moral Maze.
Aaronovitch’s notorious support for the Iraq War — something that played a not insignificant role in his progression from The Guardian/Observer to The Times, and which he really doesn’t like talking about — adds a rather spicy irony to his claim to non-combatant status in the culture war. It’s a little like a soldier ripping off his patches and insignia then plaintively telling the enemy that he was only in the catering corps.
The question of why Aaronovitch has received his (presumably) honourable — discharge from The Demon King’s Own Regiment of the Gob was answered neither by his own announcement via Twitter on January 16…
Personal announcement: At the beginning of March after nearly 18 wonderful years working with some of the finest writers, audio producers and editors in the world, I will be leaving The Times.
… nor his valedictory Times Radio appearance. It was an omission that might have tempted a more astute producer to suggest the show avoid including listeners’ calls. But Times Radio does not employ the astute, so the first question came from ‘Philip in Tooting’ and produced the following exchange:
Philip: I have a question but I was just going to say, first of all, David Aaronovitch leaving The Times is a reason for considering my subscription/I’m really, really sad about it… Chorley: (laughing awkwardly) Hang on a minute! What about me and Danny? What about our columns? Philip: I don’t buy The Times on a Thursday, well, read it avidly on a Wednesday evening — sorry, Matt — for you, but for David’s words of wisdom. So farewell and I hope we can keep up…
Asked by Press Gazette about the catalyst for his departure, Aaronovitch said:
Eighteen years is a long time to hold one of the best jobs in journalism. Someone was bound to blink first.
The implication here is that the departure’s down to money; that in a contract negotiation, “someone was bound to blink first”. Eighteen years is a long time to be a columnist but Finkelstein has been at The Times for 21 years, contributing columns for the majority of that time.by Guido’s proprietor, perpetually thirsty drink-driving enthusiast, Paul Staines, on Jan 24. Aaronovitch acknowledged it in a tweet on Feb 6:
I’ve just come to this, two weeks afterwards. My congratulations to Juliet on the new job.
His list of future plans — “books to attempt to be written”; “[Radio 4’s] Briefing Room to present”; “stacks to sub” — suggests that he was not intending to leave The Times, though his Substack will not arrive with the same air of desperation that attended Nick Cohen’s aquatic escape pod from The Observer.
I’ve talked to several Times insiders and the common tone was bafflement. The Spectator’s snide anonymous blog Steerpike surmised in a post on Feb 7 that:
… the editor of the Times, Tony Gallagher, might have had enough of writers who haven’t updated their mental software since 1997. The advent of The Remainers – following the ferocious pro-European backlash to Brexit – gave the addled Blairites a new lease of life. But that argument has been exhausted, at least as far as the public is concerned.
‘Steerpike’ references the defenestration of Starmer-speech-writing, Tony Blair-stanning centrist simperer Philip Collins in 2020. At the time, Staines — wearing his Media Guido mask — claimed:
Times source says reality is with Corbyn gone and majority Conservative government in power for four more years, his Blairite insights, however elegantly expressed, are surplus to requirements.
Collins had previously tweeted that he’d “always wanted to be thought too left-wing but never thought [he] would achieve it”. He was swiftly picked up by the New Statesman and Starmer.
The idea that Aaronovitch is out because there’s no need for (neo-) Blairites at The Times now is dubious at best. To return to the NBA analogy, it’s arguably the point when its comment section should be in a rebuild to prepare it for the high chance of a Starmer administration.
The Times’ current comment squad is thin when it comes to having sources in Labour (with the notable exception of utility player Patrick Maguire, Red Box Editor, fill-in columnist and stand-in Times Radio presenter).
Times sources that I’ve spoken to tend to think it’s about cutting costs — Aaronovitch was resting on 18 years of rate increases and Samuel won’t be — rather than ideological bloodletting on Tony Gallagher’s part. I think that’s likely; Gallagher has the demeanour of an Imperial officer on a star destroyer bridge but he’s much more interested in news than comment. And unlike Collins who only had name recognition for wonks and other kinds of… uh… wonkers, Aaronovitch is a known quantity.
I’m also told by several people that Gallagher hasn’t canned anyone since he was promoted to the big chair, and that Aaronovitch out, Samuel in isn’t a straight swap. And, it’s not as if he’s not got plenty of other projects to pursue.
But Samuel’s arrival is perplexing because the Times comment section already has several columnists who file the kind of copy she usually writes: Strident right-wing culture war stuff. Perhaps the editor(s) think that’s the angle the paper needs to double down on but Times readers think they are much less ideological than Telegraph consumers; they’re not, but their self-perception matters.
‘Philip in Tooting’ is a good example of something that concerns media execs: What drives subscriptions and retains them? Regardless of my own personal taste — I am not a fan — it’s clear that Caitlin Moran, for instance, is a big advantage for The Times as a columnist; her personal brand and audience have huge value — her presence leads to subscriptions and keeps them. Perhaps Aaronovitch’s appeal didn’t match his price but I don’t see Samuel as a starter or a three-pointer shooter in a rebuilt Times comment team.
That said, another listener question from The Times radio segment showed how disconnected a columnist can become after decades in a sinecured spot. Al in West Sussex asked:
It’s been 18 years since David joined The Times and I wanted to ask: What’s the biggest change been in Britain since David joined The Times?
As you can imagine, when you’re thinking about your valedictory and whether you’re doing to make it at all, that’s precisely what you start thinking about, ‘What are the biggest changes?’ I started the week before 7/7 and so 7/7 happened in week two of my being there. If you remember what we were concerned with in 2005 and compare it with what we’re concerned with now… it was before the 2008 Crash… so, a whole series of things. But I think the biggest change that has happened in political terms is a generational polarisation such as we have never, ever before seen in this country, that really should be telling us more than we’re currently listening to about it. There are lots of other huge changes, of course, there are. But some of them I would have anticipated, like Vladimir Putin turning out to be an extremely bad thing indeed; I just didn’t think he was a foolish thing as well. But I think the biggest thing is: I suppose I feel a sense of generational guilt about the situation we have left younger people in that I didn’t feel in 2005.
The “generational polarisation such as we have never, ever before seen in this country” is a classic bit of columnist hyperbolising. What about the generational polarisation of the 50s when the teenager emerged as a distinct economic and sociological grouping? Or the student uprisings of 1968?
Aaronovitch, the ex-Eurocommunist son of a Marxist academic, was a student radical — in 1975, he was a member of a Manchester team on University Challenge that answered most questions with the name of a Marxist in protest at the number teams Oxbridge were allowed to enter — who went on to succeed Trevor Phillips — himself now a Times columnist — as NUS president.
There are plenty of other “generational polarisations” that you could discuss too; rave culture in the early-90s and the student protests of the 00s among them.
In an interview with Press Gazette last week, Charles Moore — the occupant of another columnist’s sinecure at The Daily Telegraph, where he was once chief bald eagle and editor — said public anger at journalistic ‘looseness’ with facts is unfair because:
Well, because everything’s so fast, and because journalism’s a pretty rackety trade, isn’t it? It’s not a sort of high profession. And they’re often annoyed by what’s said in a newspaper. And they often have good reason to be annoyed. But the great thing you’re doing in news is you’re conveying as fast and accurately as you can what’s happened. Which is a surprisingly hard thing to do. And it’s not getting any easier.
Discussing his own approach to writing, he clumsily hit on the problem with almost all British newspaper columns:
… often you write in ignorance, which you then become more knowledgeable about later. After all, it’s famously a first draft of history, which obviously implies there’s a second, third, fourth draft.
People engaged in a more normal trade might not take on the things about which they are ignorant until they have dealt with that lack of knowledge. But no one afflicted with that level of self-awareness and modesty is likely to reach the big time in column writing. Fake it until you make it then fake it again for another 18 years is the fashion.
The New York Times has a recent addition to its editorial pages that illustrates this issue time and again:
‘The Conversation’ — a weekly dialogue between veteran op-ed writers Bret Stephens and Gail Collins — is like eavesdropping on the grand final of the International Conceited Fools Championships; no topic is too complicated or nuanced for them to find themselves instantly qualified to opine on it:
Bret: I would welcome it, and I suspect most teenagers would, too. It’s hard enough being 14 or 15 without needing to panic about some embarrassing Instagram pic or discovering too late that something stupid or awful you wrote on Facebook or Twitter at 16 comes back to haunt you at 20. Gail: Hey, it’s traumatic enough being haunted by what I said last month. Bret: Or last week. As columnists, we volunteered to have a paper trail for our critics to pick through. We owe it to the kids to shield them from creating public records of their own indiscretions and idiocies. Life will come roaring at them soon enough. I say no social media till they’re old enough to vote, smoke and maybe even buy a drink. Full-frontal stupidity should be left to the grown-ups — like us!
“As columnists, we volunteered to have a paper trail for our critics to pick through,” is a sentence that implies columnists actually listen to their critics. That’s a glorious dream.
Thanks to DKD for reading the draft today.
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How curious that it should appear there? Still, Samuel pretended she was very surprised when it did.