By Paul Ray
I first came across the journalist Peter Oborne via a fascinating audio clip circulating on social media, in which Oborne was being interviewed by the BBC’s Media Editor, Amol Rajan. In the clip, Oborne criticises the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg for uncritically passing on information from unaccountable government sources; he goes on to directly accuse Rajan, his interviewer, of being a ‘client journalist’. He’s undeterred by the unsurprisingly hostile reception this receives from Rajan, telling him that “it’s time this system was exploded.”
When I spoke to Oborne, a piercingly intense and serious conversation partner, I asked him to clarify the notion of a client journalist, and how it might fit into Britain’s contemporary political culture.
“A client journalist is a journalist who sees his job as decorating power, or legitimising power, and talking the language of power rather than challenging power, [and] running stories which make power accountable,” he tells me. He traces this phenomenon back to the New Labour years, saying that the controversial Iraq war was “the beginning of my realisation that [journalists] were part of power, rather than holding it to account… the idea which you get taught in journalism school and that most journalists genuinely believe – that they’re there to hold power to account – is not true.”
I ask Oborne how specifically this client journalism might manifest. One of the examples he gives me concerns laughing at politicians’ jokes. “Most politicians are rather boring people, and they also have a gruesome habit of making the same jokes thousands of times. And I can see why, they’re in different audiences and they know certain things which are safe. And so a politician makes a joke which isn’t funny and you’ve heard it ten times, and you laugh and you think it’s uproariously funny – and that laughter isn’t saying ‘Oh Mr. Politician, what a funny joke’, it’s saying ‘Oh Mr. Politician, you’re extraordinarily witty, what a clever man you are, and here I am being your friend.’”
This is a remarkable disillusionment for someone as embedded into the British political establishment as Peter Oborne was. Privately and then Cambridge educated, Oborne began his journalistic career as a junior political reporter for The Evening Standard, before (amongst other things) being appointed as The Spectator’s Political Editor by none other than Boris Johnson, eventually rising to the heights of The Telegraph’s Chief Political Correspondent. But speaking to Oborne, I get the impression that over the years, he started to smell something deeply rotten about the way politicians and the political class have begun to behave, and how elements of mainstream journalism have enabled this behaviour.
“My view is, if you go back 30 years, the Political Editor of the BBC kept his or her distance,” Oborne says. But now they’ve “been encouraged by their bosses to get a bit too close.” Later, he goes even further: “It’s important to the Downing Street strategy to have those false analyses out there. And that makes them dupes really, in the political process. That’s the danger of getting too close. In my view, not just Kuenssberg but plenty of others got too close. They forget their allegiance to the truth and reporting […] they became too close to the snake oil salesmen who tend to surround any prime minister.”
This system of client journalism perpetuates itself because journalists who refuse to go along with this closeness to power get “heavily punished”, according to Oborne. “A good example is the Political Editor of Sky News, Beth Rigby, who’s a very good journalist. In Boris Johnson’s first press conference, she asked a pretty tough question, and they never forgave her. They never gave her an interview… no access and no information went to Rigby. And in those circumstances Rigby’s job is very much compromised because her boss asks back in the news desk, why aren’t you getting the interview with the Prime Minister, why aren’t you being called to ask questions at press conferences, why aren’t you being given inside information about what’s going on inside Downing Street?”
The catalyst of Oborne’s political disillusionment is our current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, Oborne’s former boss at The Spectator. Ideologically a dyed in the wool conservative who idolises Edmund Burke, Oborne’s new book, The Assault on Truth – Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the emergence of a new moral barbarism is a painstaking, meticulous catalogue of the alleged lies and falsehoods perpetuated by Johnson and those close to him in the 2019 General Election. The experience of the modern day Conservative Party’s modus operandi seems to have cut him off from the party entirely.
“The conservatives that you get taught at Durham, the Conservative tradition from Burke to Oakeshott… [are characteristically] pragmatic and wary of big ideas. I don’t think the Conservative Party is a conservative party in the way that we have used the term for 200 years. I think under Johnson it’s a populist, a potentially revolutionary movement, which is very unconservative. Very hostile to the British state and to the rule of law, very hostile towards representative democracy, to the things which you associate with conservatives.”
Oborne’s trenchant criticism of Johnson, and his equally trenchant criticism of the media class which enables Johnson’s manipulations of the truth, have made him something of an unlikely hero among the post-Corbynite left, who feel that the media closed ranks to secure Johnson’s election over Corbyn by any means necessary. Even so, I was surprised at one point in our discussion when Oborne casually remarks that Jeremy Corbyn “was right about most issues,” given his namedropping of conservative philosophers, his career writing for right-of-centre publications, and his personal support for Brexit in 2016. His qualified admiration of Corbyn seems to mostly stem from his foreign policy positions over the past twenty years.
“Yeah, well you have to accept that he was right about the Afghan invasion, he was right about the Iraq invasion, he was one of about 12 MPs who voted against the Libyan intervention. These are three massive events which have had huge consequences – we’re still seeing the consequences of all of them. Corbyn was right about them, and all the conventional political class from Cameron to Blair to Brown were wrong about those issues. And not just that, but MI6, the CIA, generals, the top security people – they were all wrong, and Mr. Corbyn, shuffling around in his crumpled suit, was right!” he laughs, the irony of the classical English conservative agreeing with the left-wing democratic socialist not lost on him.
At the end of the interview, I ask Oborne the question that I’d had on the back of my mind since he first mentioned working with Boris Johnson at The Spectator. Has Boris always been like this? Oborne presents him as a man prepared to do almost anything in order to achieve his aims and objectives. Was he like that before he jumped into the political arena?
Oborne sighs. “I don’t know, I think about that too. I don’t talk to him at all, but… no, I think he has changed. He was very intelligent indeed to talk to, sort of realistic. And I think he’s become something else. I think he’s become slightly gross as a politician. He talks absolute rubbish in a way he never would. He talks a lot of the time and he just talks nonsense. An ugly nonsense. Racist nonsense. And all this lying – he never lied to me. I think he’s a different person.”
Image: Ground Report via Flickr