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Peter Preston: Journalists cannot be honest if they are PRs for political movements (© Rui Vieira/EMPICS Sport)


I asked Peter Preston in 2015 if he thought journalists should belong to political parties. It was the morning after the British electorate had, in its bottomless wisdom, given David Cameron a majority. I was one click of the mouse away from launching the fightback by joining the Labour Party.

Preston sighed. He edited the Guardian in the 1980s, a time of extreme political passion, much like now. Ferocious rows between supporters and opponents of Tony Benn and the Social Democratic Party tore through the newsroom. Reporters and commentators weren’t just party members, paying their subscriptions and putting up posters at election time. They were close to becoming full-time politicians as they prepared to stand as candidates.

To the regret of everyone who knew him, Peter Preston died last month. He was an authentic liberal, and, naturally, he said he would never have told his staff they couldn’t join a political party or stand for Parliament. They were free to express their political views as they wished. Of course they were. But, and here a vehemence I had never heard before entered his voice, he hated it. Absolutely hated it. What was he meant to tell the readers? Should he insert at the bottom of a news report or column “X is a disciple of Tony Benn”? Or “Y is standing as an SDP candidate”? Or “Remember that Z will never admit that her cause is less than perfect”?

Chastened, I decided that the Labour Party would just have to manage without my services and returned to work. To Preston, it was obvious you cannot simultaneously be an honest journalist and a PR for a political movement. If you are plotting to become an MP — as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove did — or government press officers — as both newspaper and BBC staff have done — or to pump out the Labour Left line — as Owen Jones and Paul Mason do — then you are no longer a journalist.

Or so it seemed to Peter Preston and so it seems to me. Anyone else, however, may find it far from obviously wrong for journalists to moonlight as political activists.

Commentators should express their honest opinion. If your honest opinion is that Brexit must be pushed through whatever the cost, or that Corbyn represents the best hope of overdue change in Britain, why should you not defend the Right of the Tory party or Left of the Labour Party? The notion that journalism must always be a heroic struggle against “power” is both vainglorious and anti-democratic. For democracy to survive, parties need men and women who will explain and defend them. Pro-Brexit voices may be over-represented in the old newspapers, but they are under-represented everywhere else. The intelligentsia is all but unanimous in agreeing that Brexit is our generation’s Munich: an epic act of folly that betrays Britain’s best interests. In these circumstances, it is not necessarily corrupt for journalists to speak for the 17.4 million who voted for Leave.
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Stephen Fox
February 14th, 2018
8:02 AM
More to the point, Donald Trump is quite right. Most journalists make awful journalists.

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