Artillery Row

Guilty of Journalism

In defence of Glen Owen doing his job

Since Lobby journalism is clearly becoming a crime, I plead guilty to multiple offences, committed over many years as a political hack at Westminster. As an aggravating factor, I consider Glen Owen of the Mail on Sunday a colleague and friend.

Owen is today the most evil man at Westminster, and possibly in Britain, because of a story he wrote about Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader. Because of that article, he’s facing demands from MPs to be stripped of his parliamentary pass. Given that this access to parliament and politicians is a prerequisite of his work, that amounts to a threat to his job.

What did Owen do that was so wicked? What did he say about Rayner that might merit his dismissal? Nothing. 

And by that, I don’t mean “none of the things Owen said justify this”. I mean that he himself said nothing about Angela Rayner.

He reported someone else saying something about her.

Do you want to live in a country where politicians decide who gets to be a political reporter?

That distinction, between saying something and reporting someone else saying it, is the absolute essence of journalism, not to mention critical thinking. If journalists can’t report people saying things without being held responsible for those things, journalism is impossible. And without journalism, democracy is impossible. 

This isn’t complicated and it shouldn’t be controversial, but a remarkable number of people seem to think that Glen Owen is somehow responsible for the words spoken to him by another person. Words that he then reported.

For that fundamental act of journalism — reporting the newsworthy words of a politician — Owen’s name is mud at Westminster, where senior MPs are demanding his Lobby pass be withdrawn; his Editor has been summoned to a meeting with the Speaker.

This is lunacy, dangerous lunacy. Even people happily joining the mob baying for Owen’s blood ought to stop and consider. Do you want to live in a country where politicians get to decide who gets to be a political reporter? Where the Parliamentary authorities look at what journalists report and, when they don’t like those reports, stop journalists reporting?

That’s the principle. What about the substance, the content of Owen’s evil report?

To recap the story: a Tory told Owen that they suspect Rayner of crossing and uncrossing her legs in the Commons so as to distract Boris Johnson in the chamber, a claim Rayner vehemently denies and for which there is no other support. Owen reported these things, including Rayner’s denial and a Labour source saying the claim was proof of Tory misogyny. Point. Par. Ends — as we used to tell the copytaker. 

This is now being held up as example of Westminster’s culture of sexism. I think that’s fair. The place is still heavy on old school men and that hasn’t changed so very much in the many years I’ve been around it. Many well-known lechers and sex-pests remain in Parliament, their groping and worse rarely properly addressed by the authorities. The Speaker who was this week so keen to pillory a journalist didn’t say a word about weekend reports that fully 50 MPs, including three ministers, are accused of sexual misconduct.

What has changed is that this stuff gets talked about and reported. It is put in the public domain, where once it would have remained secret. 

That comment about Rayner is fairly mild by the standards of Westminster “banter” I’ve heard at lunch and in the pub over the years. In the New Labour years I remember a senior member of Gordon Brown’s team making a running joke about the sexual orientation and (illegal) predilections of a serving minister. Another minister from that era would forensically discuss the anatomy of special advisers. Under another regime, a senior Cameroon minister would spend an inordinate amount of time describing what he’d like to do to (younger, female) colleagues. And so on.

I didn’t report any of this. 

Why not?

Partly because of culture and norms. In the days before #MeToo that stuff was normal. And normal isn’t newsworthy. That doesn’t mean any of it was OK. It just means it didn’t seem surprising enough to merit reporting: surely readers would just assume these things were said all the time, since similar things went on in their workplaces too?

Did I make the right choice in keeping all that “banter” to myself?

And partly because that wasn’t the deal. Political journalism means getting close to and spending time with politicians in order to find stuff out about politics and government. That means — or used to mean — eating and drinking, laughing and crying with them. It means hearing them say hundreds of un-newsworthy things while listening out for one that’s a real story.

And that can mean working relationships that involve trust and a bit of cosy complicity. It can include turning a blind eye to questionable comments in the pub, if that’s necessary to keep the relationships that get you the information you need to make news.

It also means keeping your sources’ names secret. Always. If something is said “on Lobby terms, my dear chap” then you take the speaker’s name to your grave. Regardless of what they said and what anyone thinks of what they said. 

These days, this stuff is piously called “client journalism” by sober young hacks who spend all day on Twitter and never leave their desks to get actual stories.

But it works. That Brown aide making homophobic comments once gave me a story on a serious Cabinet row on social policy. The lecherous minister once leaked a secret document on security issues. The Cameroon revealed numerous details of Government business over several years.

If I’d reported their nasty, sexist and prejudiced comments, I doubt those stories would have seen the light of day. And other politicians wouldn’t have spoken so freely to me either. The net result: the public would know more about politicos’ pub chat, and less about the business of government. 

Did I make the right choice in keeping all that “banter” to myself? Should I have shared it with the public, in hopes that the sunlight would help disinfect Westminster culture?

Maybe I should. And maybe others will do so in future. 

Or maybe they’ll look at Glen Owen, a political reporter being pilloried for reporting a politician’s words, and decide to keep quiet. Feel free to shoot the messengers, but don’t expect to get so many messages in future. Is that what the mob wants?

In the end this comes down to simple questions, which all the people damning Owen should answer. 

Having heard a politician say something unpleasant about another politician, is it better for a journalist to report those words and make the public aware of them, or to decide not to report them? Would you rather Glen Owen had heard someone make those comments about Angela Rayner and not reported them?

Anonymous is a political journalist with many years’ experience at Westminster.

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