The Endless Congratulations: How the journalistic elite write about each other

“Darling! You’re amazing! I’ll review your book and you review mine.”

There’s a telling part in Janice Turner’s Times profile of former Today programme editor Sarah Sands. She writes:

The last time we met it was 6am and Sands, now 59, was whispering questions into John Humphrys’ ear from the control room as she serenely steered the Today programme. The previous occasion was at a private dinner for the PM (then foreign secretary) and the US ambassador.

In the years before, as editor of the London Evening Standard, Sands was a fixture at every major party, private view or first night. Chic, petite, charming yet slightly unreadable, working the room briskly à la Anna Wintour, then flying off to the next do.

It’s a very clumsy way of saying: “We are both part of the establishment. We both operate in rarified circles. I too have palled around with Boris Johnson.” But it’s also an example of a very common occurrence in the British media — establishment journalists interviewing or profile friends or acquaintances, giving the features pages of major newspapers the tone of a, particularly self-satisfied parish newsletter.

Yet, after establishing that she too is one of the establishment — she’s a long-time Times columnist who gets invited to cosy suppers with the Foreign Secretary and whose husband is Ben Preston, now executive editor of The Sunday Times, former deputy editor of The Times, editor of The Radio Times and son of Peter Preston who edited The Guardian for 20 years — Turner says:

At the Standard, Sands was at the heart of the Establishment, socialising often with the super-rich. Did she think their wealth made them happy? “I remember going on Concorde’s last flight. There were quite a lot of journalists, but there were rich people too. And it was the most wretched flight, which ended up with Piers Morgan and Jeremy Clarkson having a fight. Everyone was bad-tempered, everyone had headaches.” Besides, she says, “The rich are worried all the time – about who’s after your money, and why people want to be your friend. So I wouldn’t want to be super-rich. I think.”

It’s the irregular verb of elite membership: I’m friendly, she’s a networker, they’re the establishment. Names are dropped so frequently in the piece that I’m surprised Sands didn’t have to get the carpets steam-cleaned.

Elsewhere in the same paper, Spectator and UnHerd contributor Lionel Shriver was assigned to review the new book by Spectator and UnHerd contributor Andrew Doyle. Shriver’s only complaint about Doyle’s slim volume on ‘free speech’ — meaning here the freedom to be as unpleasant as possible — is that he doesn’t fly off the handle enough:

Thus this agreeable little book falls rather between the stools. For the free-speech faithful, Doyle’s tone is awfully mild. Given that his only book-buying audience agrees with him already, he may as well have let rip. It’s not outrage I missed (lord, we’ve enough of that), but humour. Considering that Doyle invented the drolly tongue-in-cheek Titania McGrath and has toured as a stand-up comic, why isn’t a single line in this volume funny? The heart of this project is wholly in the right place, but its unrelenting earnestness is killing.

What struck me about Shriver’s piece wasn’t her assessment of Doyle’s work but the opening paragraph in which she says:

In what a less polarised world would call “centrist” media — such as UnHerd, Persuasion, Spiked, The Spectator and Quillette — a host of essays have railed against the illiberalism of our era. I’ve written such pieces myself. In this household, these fierce defences of free speech have two things in common: I agree with all of them, and I can’t read them any more.

This is remodelling the Overton Window on a grand scale, with no regard to its location in the heart of a conservation area. If Shriver consider UnHerd and Quilette ‘centrist’ then what would she accept as right-wing? Stormfront? The Daily Stormer? Ulster Freedom Fighters graffiti scrawled on lamp posts in Derry?

I put forward the last one because there is a notorious photo of Shriver with a UFF mug taking pride of place on her coffee table. Most people would find their freelance commissions and book contracts drying up if they were pitched with terrorist merch, but not Lionel. She continues to be given ample space by the likes of The Times and The Spectator who know she can be relied upon to spew out invective with a pseudo-intellectual sheen.

Asked about the mug in a 2018 interview with The Irish Times, Shriver defended it as simply part of a wider collection of paramilitary pottery:

The day I meet Shriver she is planning to write a Spectator article to put the record straight. Shriver spent 12 years in Belfast and has identified herself as a unionist but has never, she says, supported loyalist terrorists such as the UFF. The mug is part of a collection of paramilitary mugs she owns, a collection “that is perfectly balanced in terms of sectarian preference”.

She has IRA mugs, too, she says. “I consider them all comical and ludicrous. For that to be taken seriously is absurd. For anyone to imagine that I supported violent loyalism is ridiculous and displays an utter failure to have read anything I have written about Northern Irish politics or about terrorism generally.”

Later she again expresses her disbelief that people are offended. I explain that people don’t know about her collection and can just see one, contextless, UFF mug, and to some Irish Catholics, this is like displaying a KKK mug. She looks thoughtful. “It’s shoving a cattle prod up their arse,” she says acceptingly.

The Spectator article mentioned in that excerpt only makes it worse as she offers a glowing review for the loyalist loot as compared to Sinn Féin swag:

During a dozen years in Belfast I collected a number of political coffee mugs, hailing from both sides of the divide. Unionist designs including the heartbreakingly punctuated ‘Ulster Say’s No’ (not merely to the Anglo-Irish Agreement; no to everything) and the impressively witty ‘Reservoir Prods’: four toughs in shades identified as ‘Mr Orange’ and ‘Mr Boyne’, etc.

The republican mugs exhibit no such sense of humour, which won’t surprise you. Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams stare sternly from their porcelain. Worse, the mugs from the Sinn Fein bookshop are cheaply decorated with decals, which are less robust than the inked unionist ones, and tend to melt in the dishwasher.

I’m stuck on this dishwasher-based diversion only because it furthers the main point of this edition: The journalism establishment will forgive almost anything if it’s one of their pals or someone who consistently vomits out ‘entertaining’ copy. Shriver gets to stash away terrorist tea mugs because she’s part of the gang. Imagine someone on the Left boasting about their Red Army Faction oven gloves or collection of FARC-themed tea towels. They’d be beasted by The Daily Mail until they were reduced to a cloud of dust. There’s is no chance they’d be given 800 words in The Spectator to explain themselves.

You’d have to be a horrible cynic — and I am — to suggest that contributing to The Times was a big reason that Shriver’s last big interview with the paper in May 2020 was so celebratory. Beneath the headlineLionel Shriver: The writer who’s not afraid to poke at the woke’, Helen Rumbelow writes:

Over the years I have thrilled, vicariously, to reports of Shriver’s day-long fasts, followed by ten miles of hard running along the Thames at night before eating her sole meal of the day. It was as if she was not a novelist, but a warrior in training: tough, self-disciplined and, let’s face it, a bit superior.

It wasn’t journalism. It was fandom. And it reflected The Times’ general editorial line of attacking anything it considers ‘woke’:

The first thing people know about Lionel Shriver is her warning shot of a novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin; next, her determined “woke” baiting, most notably wearing a sombrero in a speech attacking political correctness…

I expected a pugnacious conversation, but she is funny and generous. Has she gone soft, literally? The answer is both: a bit, and not where it matters. This book is a showcase for her libertarian politics: the plot includes a white man hounded out of his job by an aggressively “woke” black woman. It’s an audacious move, in the context of how much flak Shriver got after the “sombrero speech”.

Truly there is nothing so audacious as creating an “aggressively ‘woke’ black woman” to use as a straw-woman in your didactic fiction.

When Shriver says in her review of Doyle’s book that she thinks a raft of right-wing publications should actually be seen as centrist she is simply saying the quiet bit loud.

There are clearly a lot of other people in the British media who agree with Shriver and feel immensely comfortable with, for instance, BBC presenters like Justin Webb contributing to UnHerd (his latest piece is ‘Why Biden should be more like Bannon) than they would be if they had bylines on Novara Media. Despite the continued insistence by the Right that it is they who are silenced, it certainly seems like being on the Left is not a great career move.

To see how the media establishment huddles around the same flame just take a look at who sent congratulations when Guido Fawkes teaboy, Telegraph columnist and Rolfe from The Sound of Music cosplay king Tom Harwood announced his new job as Political Correspondent for GB News.

There in his Twitter mentions you’ll find Piers Morgan, Hugo Gye (the deputy political editor of the i Paper), Robert Colville (director of the CPS think tank and Sunday Times columnist), Benjamin Cohen (the CEO of Pink News), Charlie Haynes (a producer and presenter for BBC News’ HardTalk), Benjamin Butterworth (a senior reporter and editor at the i Paper), Lord Zac Goldsmith (the racist ex-London Mayoral candidate now plying his trade at DEFRA), Jake Wallis Simons (the deputy editor of The Jewish Chronicle), talkRADIO’s Julia Hartley-Brewer, Stephen Edginton (a political reporter on The Sun), Peter Ruddick (of BBC Breakfast), and, of course, Harry Cole (Sun political editor and a fellow Guido alumnus). The only surprise was that Evan Davies managed to restrain himself from offering his congratulations publicly…

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that Harwood’s haul of congratulations came not just from fellow out and out right-wingers but staffers at the allegedly Bolshevik BBC which he and his pals at The Telegraph and Guido Fawkes have spent so much time castigating and the supposedly ‘left of centre’ i Paper.

From the Blair years on, the British media has drifted further and further to the right. There are no mainstream left-wing papers anymore. The Guardian, The Independent and The i Paper are framed that way in televised newspaper reviews but they are centrist to their core and play nicely with the Right often. Benjamin Butterworth is a guest on Julia Hartley-Brewer’s talkRADIO breakfast show several times a week!

Read the weekend papers as I do and you’ll find the opinion and features sections of the broadsheets written by a coterie of columnists who all know each other, seem to live very similar lives and appear unable to imagine anyone who doesn’t have a column (unless that is, they’re constructing fantasy working-class people in their imaginations to prove a point).

With byline pictures in which they either look comically stern or laugh ludicrously at their own jokes (a tragically untreatable condition known as Chorleyism), they write for their friends about their friends and then have the gall to castigate people for not buying a paper. Why would people choose to pick up publications that are so myopic, so insular, so committed to cheering their own and dragging everyone else down?