While the Telegraph has never been shy about its politics, it was once known for its tolerance and diversity of views. Not any more, says its former diarist TIM WALKER
It seems a comical notion now, but The Daily Telegraph once recommended Gina Miler for a peerage. We’re going back a few years, of course, before the paper became the house journal of the Church of Brexit, but I managed to include her in an alternative New Year’s honours list that I compiled for 2013.
‘I fell in love with Gina when she stood up and halted a desultory charity auction at the Hurlingham Club to tell the hugely wealthy gathering that they were being far too mean,’ I had trilled in what now seems a kinder, gentler time. ‘She would, for sure, be a sparky addition to the Upper House.’
I stand by that recommendation, but, all things considered, it was just as well I was given my marching orders not long after that list was published.
The Telegraph was clearly not destined to be a convivial home for any member of Miller’s fan club. Three years on, when she valiantly fought for the right of Parliament to have its say on Article 50 – or took it upon herself to challenge ‘the will of the people,’ as the Telegraph saw it – its writers talked disdainfully of her ‘special kind of arrogance’ and suddenly felt it necessary to mention her Guyanese heritage.
There was a time when the Telegraph was famous for its tolerance of other people’s points of view and one of the joys of writing for it was that it was possible, just every once in a while, to challenge rather than confirm the prejudices of its readers.
I was a judge of the ‘comment’ section of the British Journalism Awards, which were announced last Monday, and, while we managed to find a worthy recipient in Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian, it occurred to me, sifting through the entries, that almost all newspapers have now become a lot less tolerant and a lot more shouty than they were in the past.
The Telegraph is, however, in a class of its own. It has long been a snobby paper – its journalists must use the word ‘lavatory’ rather than ‘toilet’ – but Brexit has given it such a lofty disdain for those if feels not to share its point of view that it has almost become a parody of itself.
Its recent front page – emblazoned with the names and photographs of MPs it saw as ‘Brexit Mutineers’ for daring to rebel against Theresa May’s plan to enshrine in law the day Britain quits the EU – would, of course, have been unthinkable during the thoughtful and urbane editorship of Bill Deedes.
The modern Telegraph is obsessed with Brexit because, in a very real sense, it was the incubator for it. Its two former writers who got most hot and bothered about Europe – Boris Johnson and Daniel Hannan – now prosecute their case against it as Conservative politicians.
Another, Cristina Odone, who once wrote that Europe was becoming a ‘no God zone,’ now thinks for the controversial pro-Brexit think tank Legatum on a salary rumoured to be in excess of £150,000 a year.
Comment journalists on right-wing papers aren’t, at the best of times, like other journalists, who mostly come up, as I did, through local newspapers and have, as a consequence, had some experience of real life.
This elite tends, by contrast, to be fast-tracked on to national papers from Oxbridge and led to believe from an early age that their views matter and must be taken seriously.
The smart ones twig soon enough that moderate views get them absolutely nowhere – certainly never on to Question Time.
They twig, too, that in journalism, unlike politics, they need never have to take responsibility for their rhetoric.
I remember the Telegraph’s comment journalists as an obsessive little group – angry not just about the European Union, but a lot of other things, too. At a morning conference, there was once a heated row about the right to die a peaceful death with a bit of help from the doctors when the prognosis was hopeless: I was very much in favour, these people were almost uniformly pro-agony.
It was a peculiarity of the Telegraph’s embryonic Brexiteers that they were almost all of them Catholics, as was Tony Gallagher, the paper’s editor (now in charge of the pro-Brexit Sun), and the proprietors, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay. I might add that Johnson was, perhaps typically, born and baptised a Catholic, but subsequently switched to Anglicanism.
I don’t say that it is an established tenet of the Catholic faith to hate the European Union – the very civilised Lord Deben is, for instance, a devout Remainer as well as a devout Catholic, and the Pope, of course, resides on mainland Europe – but I do say on this particular paper, in the days when Johnson, Hannan and Odone and their friends worked for it, it was a strong and binding influence in the anti-EU camp.
Tellingly, Charles Moore, another Telegraph comment writer and a particularly strict Catholic, would occasionally face demands from Muslim leaders for his dismissal after he had seen fit to make especially intemperate attacks on their faith. I trace a lot of the Islamophobia that was later to manifest itself during the EU Referendum campaign and afterwards to Moore’s writings, which had a strong underlying theme of Catholic exceptionalism.
Faith certainly figured in the series of meetings I had with Sir David Barclay at the Ritz after I had left the paper and Ed Victor, the late, great literary agent, had asked me to sound him out about an authorised biography.
It was fair to say Sir David was taken with evangelical fervour on certain issues and had an idea of England that might be said to be nostalgic, if not sepia-tinted.
Sir David talked once of how, when the walls of his castle on the Channel Islands were erected, he was adamant that they should be especially thick. It was almost as if he was looking ahead with enthusiasm to the day that he might one day withdraw behind them.
Brexit is also of course about withdrawal, not just from Europe, but from the whole notion of fraternity among peoples and nations that was, after the devastation and madness of the Second World War, uppermost in the minds of the founding fathers of the European Union.
Theirs remains a big, bold and beautiful vision. The alternative that the Barclays and their current and former employees at the Telegraph are championing so fervently might well make for a great piece of polemic in a newspaper for old people, but, by Jove, it’s no way to run a country.
Tim Walker worked as the Mandrake diarist, theatre critic and feature writer on the Telegraph titles between 2002 and 2014. He subsequently joined the Daily Mirror