Peregrine Worsthorne

Peregrine Worsthorne was born in 1923 and educated at Stowe and Peterhouse, Cambridge. He started his journalistic career on Glasgow Herald in 1946 and joined the editorial staff of The Times in 1948. He was a journalist with the Daily Telegraph from 1953-61 before joining the Sunday Telegraph in 1961, where he was first deputy editor (1961-76), then associate editor (1976-86) and finally editor (1986-9). His publications include The Socialist Myth (1972), By the Right (1987) and his autobiography Memory (1993). He was knighted in 1991. I interviewed him in May 1998.

You grew up more or less fatherless, your parents having separated and your father’s name never being mentioned by anyone, least of all your mother. Even allowing for children’s acceptance of strange circumstances your lack of curiosity about your father seems very puzzling…

It wasn’t so much a lack of curiosity, more an awareness that to be curious would have caused my mother great pain and unhappiness. At that very early age no child wants to upset his mother, who is the fountain of all joy.

You say that when you got to know your father many years later he appeared to be completely ignorant of the reasons for his marrying your mother and the reasons for the marriage breaking up. Did you find this vagueness convincing?

He wasn’t ignorant of the reasons for his marrying my mother – it was a sensible sort of dynastic marriage appropriate to that period – but he was entirely and convincingly ignorant of why my mother, having married him, suddenly decided to break the marriage up. I myself remain to this day ignorant, because my mother never really explained and I didn’t have the nerve to ask her. My father certainly wasn’t at fault, except for the sin of being feckless in my mother’s eyes and not trying to get any worthwhile job. The idle rich were the worst of all human beings, and that was what my father was, and she disapproved of that strongly. She found him very wet, but although he failed to live up to her idea of what a man should be, it hardly seemed enough to break up a marriage.

You speak of your mother in less than affectionate terms. In your father’s absence she felt it necessary to be a sergeant-major figure rather than the tenderly maternal figure you would have preferred. Looking back now can you say what effect this double deprivation had on your development?

It’s very difficult to say, though the deprivation was certainly carried to extreme lengths. My mother married a second time when my brother and I were quite young. She married a famous man, Montagu Norman, governor of the Bank of England, and she dedicated her love and protection almost exclusively to him. He was much older than she was, so it was a full-time job for her. In order to guarantee my stepfather’s peace and quiet, he and my mother lived in one house and my brother and I lived in another, with our own staff – cook, butler and so on. We only met from time to time, and lived very much on our own, surrounded by a good deal of comfort but not much affection. I’m not certain exactly what effect it had. Both my brother and I have led perfectly ordinary lives and been reasonably happy, so I don’t think it was disastrous.

Was there anyone – a nanny, for example, who supplied love, and perhaps was there to be loved in return?

The father figure during my childhood and adolescence was the butler, who must have been quite a young man when he came into our lives. He had been a private in the First World War, in the trenches and had been badly gassed. My mother’s friends didn’t talk about the war but James the butler, was very willing to do so, and he made the horrors of war come alive in my imagination. I spent a lot of time in his company, and although there was a certain master-servant relationship, he also fulfilled the father role, so far as I was concerned.

Do you believe that children in general are horribly damaged by their home situation, or do you think there is a tendency to overstate this?

The latter. Obviously if we had been the victims of child abuse, of extreme poverty or of a brutal stepfather, that might have made a deeper impact, but in fact our lives were not remotely bad. We lived in considerable comfort and my mother’s main concern was to stop us growing up like our father. Also, one must remember that in those days, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, most children from that kind of well-off background didn’t see all that much of their parents and were mostly brought up by nannies or governesses. So, although it was not abnormal to spend a lot of time in the company of servants rather than one’s parents.

Your stepfather did not welcome the idea of you and your brother crashing about his beautiful homes, either in London or in the country, so – as you’ve mentioned – a separate residence was provided for you, something which you accept as normal, but which to the rest of the world seems almost beyond belief. Did you have any contact with your stepfather?

Very little. He was basically a kind and good man, but he married late in life and had no experience of children, and my mother naturally protected him. Sometimes he would pop into the bedroom which I shared with my brother and say, ‘Had enough grub boys?’ It was always the same enquiry because he realized that children were very interested in food, and we would say, ‘Yes, thank you very much,’ and he would then smile and go out, having done his stepfatherly duty. But we didn’t think of him as being cruel or anything, we thought he was a very busy and important man. As for our mother, she was extremely dutiful and took tremendous care to make sure we fulfilled our potential, which meant working hard at school and not misbehaving at home, rather than giving us fun or making sure we had a jolly time. She didn’t remotely let us run wild, and she didn’t show much concern for our pleasures. I think that would be a fair summary of her attitude.

Despite the fact that home life was not particularly happy, you seem to imply that it was preferable to boarding school…is that right?

[laughter] Anything was preferable to boarding school in those days. It is difficult to exaggerate the filthiness of the food, the rigorousness of the discipline, the coldness of the buildings, the incredible discipline of the masters and the physical discomfort. It really was horrible.

You had to endure the humiliation of being sent to Abinger with only one pair of shorts, instead of the regulation three, and your mother’s cast off riding boots which were unmistakably feminine. Most men in later life would make a great deal of this and blame such events for all their subsequent faults of character. Did it not occur to you to do this?

I honestly don’t think it did. Early in life I was aware of the eccentricities of human beings. And the spoiling of children was something that was regarded as very unwise. It was felt that you were improving children’s characters by not allowing them to have everything they wanted. The whole spending culture was also so different from what it is today.

When you got to Stowe your house was ‘full of boys from lower-middle-class homes in the north of England’. Was this the first time you became conscious of class as a divisive factor in British society?

An interesting question, but I think one is aware of class right from the word go. I mean, as a young child, I would play with the local children out of doors, but they never came indoors with me. I became great friends with all the children of the people who worked on the estate, but it was a friendship which stopped at the front door, and I didn’t invite them in for a bun or whatever I might have offered as a form of child hospitality, because I recognized that they were quite the same as the children of my parents’ friends. So there was a definitive recognition that they were different, but when you say divisive, it suggests that one would have been conscious of the fact, but actually it was just taken for granted in those days. One just thought God had made some people of one kind and some people of another, it didn’t seem part of any system.

You say in your book that it is impossible you write truthfully about this without sounding snobbish. Why, I wonder, is this: what was it that made you feel so superior to these children on the estate? Surely their social background did not, in itself, make them horrible children, or in some sense intrinsically unworthy…

Absolutely not, and we enjoyed playing with them very much. I don’t think one felt that these children were inferior, one simply felt, without perhaps even putting it into conscious thought, that they were different. It was rather as if they were foreign, as if they were a different species. And they in turn absolutely accepted it as normal that they wouldn’t be invited into our house. By the time my own children came into the world, everything had changed and we were beginning to live in an egalitarian age where you went out of your way not to approve of these kinds of class distinctions. They took it as absolutely natural that these differences must be avoided and they would have gone out of their way to avoid them. It would have been quite improper to treat the children of servants differently – the whole climate had changed completely.

But was improper because it was politically incorrect, or was it improper because they believed it was wrong?

They felt it was wrong, just as I and my generation from that milieu thought it was right. The Zeitgeist had changed radically and children are naturally affected by the assumptions of the period they live in, and in the case of my own children, these were egalitarian assumptions.

You devote a whole chapter of your autobiography to James, your grandmother’s butler, and to the reflections on the master/servant relationship, which you argue in favour of as a means of breaking down class barriers. Most people would find this an astonishing idea – particularly James perhaps who tried to struggle up from his deathbed in order to stand, as he had always done in your presence. What did you have in mind exactly?

It’s a very complicated argument, and one which is difficult to make nowadays without provoking derision. Domestic service in the 1930s was still a very widespread form of employment, and it was the way in which the great mass of people experienced, even if only vicariously, civilized conversation, good manners, the pleasure to be derived from looking after beautiful objects and being aware of what life could potentially be. James the butler, learnt to speak proper English, and he adopted the manners and style of speech of a gentleman, and in his Lancashire village he became a figure who commanded great respect. It was a rough village, a coal-mining area, and his relations saw him as having enormously bettered himself. He would go to London and meet interesting people, including Churchill who was a relation of my grandmother. I believe that for a very wide selection of the working population in those days, this domestic service was a method by which the civilizing process reached into areas which no other civilizing process would ever have a chance of reaching. It produced people who have had more fulfilling lives than they might otherwise have enjoyed, and given the fact that there are always going to be lots of poor people who lead rather limited lives, this was a way of including a very large swathe in a fuller life.

But how exactly did this break down class barriers?

I don’t think there was any question of passing the class barrier at all – that was not what happened – but given the existence of class barriers, this seemed to me a way of making sure that those who were born at the bottom of the heap had a taste of a higher, better kind of life. James was a marvellous example of this; he learnt to appreciate pictures, and silver, and good conversation, and all the things that would have been denied him if he had gone on living in his extremely cramped tiny cottage. So given the circumstances of the day, it seemed to me good fortune if you worked for a decent family.

Has your marriage to Lucy Lambton changed your attitude to class, and what might be called social snobbery?

Well Lucy is extremely hostile to snobbery of any kind, and she thinks that the old class system is unjust and makes those who benefit from it unduly complacent, self-satisfied and insensitive. Although she was born at the top, so to speak, she much prefers the egalitarian ethos of today to the hierarchical class culture of her parents’ generation, which was also my generation. You could actually call her an inverted snob. For Lucy, anybody of the upper classes is assumed guilty of snobbery until they’ve proved themselves otherwise, and you could say that she is prejudiced against the upper classes, in rather the same way as in the old days people were prejudiced against the upper classes, in rather the same way as in the old days people were prejudiced against the lower classes. But I think if you live with somebody you love who has very different views from your own, you do take the other person’s views on board through a sort of process of osmosis, though I should say that I don’t regard myself as ever having been snobbish.

In spite of everything though, you seem still to be opposed to any idea of an egalitarian society. Is that because you don’t believe in the basic concept?

Yes. Obviously I am affected by my upbringing to some extent, but as a journalist and writer I’ve always tried to argue the case on a logical, rational basis. I think there’s a lot to be said for a hierarchical society and a lot to be said against an egalitarian one. All through my adult life we’ve concentrated on creating conditions which produce a contented bottom section of society. We’ve totally forgotten that it is equally important for society to have conditions which produce a good political or governing class. In fact, I think it is more important to take care of the bottom section of society, simply for the good of all.

Without wishing to be too pointed, whatever you say about class is necessarily said from a position of social advantage and privilege, and although this does not invalidate you opinion, it does give it a certain angle…

I would put it like this: as a result of my mother marrying Montagu Norman I experienced at first hand the best of the English landowning, old-fashioned governing class, people of great public spirit, of a high sense of service, public duty, particularly in the case of Norman, who, as governor of the Bank of England, maintained very high standards of probity in the City. The friends of the Norman family were almost the idealized version of the idea of an English gentleman, and of the English paternalist elite. I saw this model side of the way Britain was run, and it was my good fortune to escape from the sections of the upper class which are very difficult to defend on any public-interest grounds. You can defend them on the grounds of personal charm, on eccentricity, on adding colour to life but you can’t defend them on the grounds of being public spirited, unlike the lot I was in for whom I developed enormous admiration. It was something which was unique to England.

Coming back to Stowe, it was there that you became aggressively a champion of Catholicism and rejected Christianity in its Anglican form. You wanted to rebel, which is understandable, but what kept the flame of Catholicism burning with so little encouragement?

They key is probably the desire to rebel. I had been brought up as a Catholic and been sent away to a rigorous Catholic preparatory school. My mother took me away because I developed impetigo, thought to be a disease only dirty working-class boys got. She was outraged that I should have developed this hideous disease, but the real reason was that at that precise point she had married my stepfather who was Anglican, and since she thought that everything he did was right, it followed that being Anglican was right and being Catholic was wrong. When she married my stepfather her Catholic relations were all outraged and gave her the cold shoulder because they didn’t agree with divorce. She wanted to stop us being Catholic but she couldn’t. However, she did send us to Stowe where I made a point of not becoming Anglican and instead upholding my original faith. I also greatly enjoyed provoking my masters, particularly the history masters, with anti-Protestant propaganda which I’d imbibed from clever authors like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. I use to ask if it was true the Queen Elizabeth had died of syphilis, and this would get a very angry reaction. It was a way of drawing attention to myself. It suited my own far from spiritual purpose to make a thing of being a Catholic, it gave me an identity from everybody else.

What has your Catholicism meant to you? Do you think you would have been a very different person without it?

I ceased practising my Catholic faith when I was at Cambridge, and so most of my life has been spent without Catholicism. I very much regret this in many ways. I really think that parents should insist on children practising faith until it becomes a habit; you can’t leave faith to chance.

Not practising is one thing, of course, but has your basic faith ever wavered, would you say? Or have you arrived at the stage of no longer believing?

What is believing? I neither believe nor disbelieve; I do what it is quite illogical to do – I don’t give the matter great thought. I suppose I believe in a passive sense, in the sense that I don’t disbelieve, but I don’t believe in an active sense. I have no doubt that when I die, however, I shall die as a believer because I find disbelief more difficult to take on board. I wish with all my heart I could believe more fervently, and though I find it impossible to do so, that is very far from saying I didn’t believe.

Do you believe in life after death, as taught by the church?

I believe in heaven and hell. I think there is an afterlife, though just what that consists of I’m not certain, and I suppose nobody else is, even the church. I’m pretty certain that the next world will not be one where priorities in this world count for anything. I suppose I do feel that the all-merciful God will not hold it against me that I’ve not been totally obedient according to the Church’s dictates. I rather assume that God will be permissive, rather than the God of wrath of the Old Testament, but that of course may be wishful thinking. I certainly don’t believe that there is nothing after this earthly life ceases. I also don’t believe that I can sort out these questions which far greater minds than mine have failed to do.

You speak up in defence of friendship and love between boys who grow up together in all-male school, whether or not there is any physical expression of it and you confess to homoerotic feelings for a friend at Cambridge. Do you think you would have had these feelings anyway, even if you had not been in an all male environment?

Almost unquestionably not, because I think I’m more heterosexual than homosexual and always would have been if given the chance. If I hadn’t been in a unisex school I think I would have been much more intent upon finding friendships with girls rather than boys, but as a result I would have missed a relationship of the utmost importance. Indeed there were several homosexual relationships – loves of great intensity which meant a lot to me – and I’m very glad that I had them.

You seem to concede that many males who turned to homosexuality would not have done so had they been in mixed establishments…do you really believe it’s nurture rather than nature?

I think its nurture and nature. I sometimes wonder what would have happened to me if I had lived in a time when homosexuality was as open and as widespread and as smiled upon by society as it is today. When I was at Cambridge, homosexuality was certainly very widely practised and totally accepted and pretty open – parties were all male and men danced together, but we always saw it as a period that would not last for very long, and once one left university it would all come to an end. Of course it would have been possible to continue with that life in London, in the Ritz bar, for example, which was frequented by attractive, rich homosexuals who would have liked one to have joined their little secret world, which had its attractions as all secret worlds do. I wasn’t actually tempted, because I think my basic inclinations were too much towards the heterosexual, but if I had come into a world where it had been even more possible to continue in adult life one’s sexual proclivities from childhood and adolescence, I wonder what would have happened.

How far do you think tolerance should go in the area of homosexuality…would you lower the age of consent?

No. If you start from the proposition that people are basically happier as heterosexuals, that this is the proper and normal and most satisfactory way of living your life, then I think it’s important that society should make it as difficult as possible for people to carry on being homosexual. This of course assumes that lots of people are a bit homosexual and more heterosexual, so it’s always slightly finely balanced, but society should do its very best to make sure that people choose the happier rather than the unhappier path.

Should homosexual priests in the Church of England, for example, be allowed to have legal ‘partners’?

No. Church and state should start from the assumption that it is better for society, without coercion of an overt and cruel kind, to have as few homosexuals as possible. Homosexual clergy should be celibate and chaste, and the law should safeguard the young as far as possible from being proselytized into the homosexual way of life, which is not a happy one. One need not argue on moral grounds so much as utilitarian ones. Even after homosexuality has ceased to be a criminal offence, homosexuals remain a sad lot on the whole.

You say you had a ‘cushy’ war and regret that your war service did not succeed in separating the men from the boys, that is to say, you came out of the army not knowing into which category you fell. Why was that so important?

It remains for most of us a moot point whether we have this most important quality of all our courage. One of the few advantages of wartime is that it can help you discover what your reactions are in moments of great danger, when your life’s at risk, and if you discover that you have courage in extreme situations, it is an enormous source of comfort and satisfaction. I never had the opportunity to discover whether I had the gift of courage, of not being frightened to lose my life in a good cause. Many of my contemporaries came out knowing they had this supreme quality; I didn’t.

Was it your later experience of being an apprentice journalist in Glasgow which defined your passage to manhood, would you say?

Yes. If one was born, as I was, into the upper class – again one hesitates, because it still sounds inexcusably snobbish and my wife would squirm with embarrassment – one was incredibly protected. OK, you suffer the indignities of a schoolboy at boarding school, but you go through life not having to worry about money, knowing you are part of a network of relations, acquaintances, friends who look after you. You have roots in institutions – school, university, regiment, gentlemen’s clubs – and you’re cocooned with a sense of security. In Glasgow just after the war I found myself for the first time on my own. I was a junior sub-editor – the most menial job possible, amounting to little more than making the tea for the other sub-editors. I was earning very little money, I lived in squalid digs and Glasgow was very rough. I used to rattle home on the trams after my stint at two o’clock in the morning surrounded by drunken people and prostitutes of a hideousness and squalor which defy description. It was then I began to realize what life could be like for most people who don’t have the upper-class protection, and it was a very useful, chastening experience.

When you went to London to work on The Times you met the woman who was to become your wife, but first you went through with her the trauma of agreeing, against all you had ever believed in, that she should have an illegal abortion, and when it went wrong it almost cost Claudie her life. How long did it take to recover from the guilt, or do you have it still?

I have it still. The guilt sprang partly from the awful nature of abortion in those days and the fact that then, particularly for a Catholic, to allow such a thing to happen was a taboo. Claudie was made very ill, and it was a tremendously painful and traumatic experience, involving the police, and so on. I felt responsible for what happened.

From what you wrote, you seemed to feel no moral ambivalence about the abortion, and though you describe it as ‘a dreadful deed, profoundly wrong’, that did not seem to matter. Even your Catholicism was no deterrent. What exactly was it that made you see it as a dreadful deed if you were able to disregard its dreadfulness?

Part of the business of life is the fact that it is so easy to commit dreadful deeds. We all learn about the banality of evil, how ordinary it became for the Germans to commit the atrocities which culminated in the Holocaust. A dreadful deed…what does that mean? It is true – I did approach the abortion with dread, but even dread pales into insignificance if the pressures of the world seem strong enough.

When Claudie became terribly ill, you say you prayed to God as you had never prayed before to allow her to live. You write: ‘A fortnight later she came out of hospital and we got engaged to be married.’ It almost seems the two things were contingent – i.e. you married her because she was spared…

It’s difficult to be dogmatic about why one does anything I suppose, but there is a connection, yes.

Your right-wing views are well known and no doubt deeply held and sincere, but how many of them are inspired by your declared aim of giving maximum offence to the great and good?

I suppose if I had lived my adult life before the 1945 landslide Labour victory and England had been run before the war, I might well have been much more of a socialist, or at least much less of a conservative. In the circumstances of the time there were almost no conservative journalists or writers, apart from Evelyn Waugh who stood out like a sore thumb. The Zeitgeist was overwhelmingly socialist and egalitarian, and therefore to be conservative was rather like being a Catholic at a Protestant school. If you are a nonconformist by instinct, it was very tempting to be conservative, and I enjoyed borrowing beautifully stated arguments from conservative writers who were totally out of fashion. Nobody else seemed to know them, and it seemed a good wheeze, journalistically speaking, to ply my trade by propagating them.

You accuse the great and the good of being England ‘to its present parlous position’ – liberal, middle-of-the-roaders, who prefer running Covent Garden to fighting on the barricades in the class war. What is the thinking that lies behind this statement? Wouldn’t any sensible person rather run an opera house than fight in a class war? Should there even be a class war?

By fighting on the barricades, I meant fighting the Cold War, and by mentioning Covet Garden, I was really getting at the liberal establishment tendency to concentrate on things which are peripheral to the maintenance of civilization. In the sentence you quoted I had in mind the complete failure of trade-union power which were building up. It was only the illiberal Mrs Thatcher who came to terms with that and made Britain governable again by breaking the power of the trade unions. She didn’t do so with any support from the cultural establishment but rather with constant sniping from them, and it was in that sense that I meant they ought to be fighting on the barricades rather than looking after Covent Garden. They ought to have seen the first thing about any society is that it should be governable; their worrying about human rights and civil rights and so on made no sense. The liberals failed to grasp any of the nettles, and it was in that sense that I describe them as the pall bearers of the coffin of old England.

If you were to write the book again now, would you change anything that you wrote then?

Yes, I think I would. It was written with a view to an early serialisation and a lot of money, and I did it in a great hurry to meet those requirements. I would rewrite much of the political stuff. I think it was wrong on many of the major questions of the day: wrong on race and immigration, wrong probably on the permissive society which was bound to come and is now irreversible, and wrong about the old ruling class which wasn’t nearly as impressive or as altruistic as I’d like to pretend.

Your mother was a remarkable woman in some ways, with a strong social conscience. Do you think your hatred of do-gooders is a reaction against her life of high moral purpose?

Yes, I do associate that kind of life with many of my mother’s character traits which I didn’t admire, and my feelings about her probably rubbed off on the whole social-service regiment of do-gooding men and women.

Has your recent television series with Darcus Howe changed or modified your views a great deal?

I had always been ambivalent about political correctness, particularly as applied to race. The problem stemmed from the fact that I was brought up to regard the white race as superior to all other races, and overwhelmingly superior to the black race, and however much white people pretend that they no longer have that view – and indeed many of them don’t – you can never quite be sure. Darcus Howe helped me see that political correctness is much more justified than I once thought, that it is a reasonable thing to try and practise with regard to race. He helped me crystallize these feelings, and I now think it is much more important to avoid being anti-black than, say, anti-Semitic.

On the face of it, you were an unlikely companion to travel round Britain with Darcus Howe. Were you attracted by the fact that it was such a bizarre association?

That, and the fact that I was flattered to be asked by him. Also it happened to coincide with my changed feelings about race, coupled with the idea that it was necessary to be more sensitive on this score. I mean, my father who lived into his eighties would never sit down to dinner with a black man, and he would have been absolutely outraged to have been invited to do so, and that’s not all that long ago. My father was not a remotely nasty man, indeed he was a loveable man; it’s just that those feelings were predominant. So we do have to make allowances for chips on black shoulders. God knows, they have reasons to have chips.

You mention taking purple hearts at a time of stress in your career…do you approve of the use of so-called recreational drugs?

I don’t disapprove or approve; I am simply frightened of the effect they might have on me individually. After long trial and error, I’ve just about got to know how much alcohol I can drink and how much tobacco I smoke without grotesquely overdoing either. So many of my contemporaries have smoked and drunk themselves to death at an early age, and I feel I have found a way of avoiding that fate. I think that drugs would take control of me in a way that drink hasn’t quite done, so I keep away out of fear rather than any kind of moral disapproval.

You complained that the liberals have done nothing to ensure the survival of monogamous marriage, yet you were serially unfaithful to your wife, and even left her for a time. Is this what you meant by monogamous marriage?

Well, obviously not. While it is true I was unfaithful to my first wife, the marriage did survive until, sadly, she died of cancer a few years ago. The point is it did not end in divorce, which might have been the case if I hadn’t had views about marriage which preclude divorce except as a desperate last resort. I also think you can admire and praise in your writing ideals which you don’t find possible to practise yourself. I am well aware of the evils of adultery and perhaps only aware of them so acutely for having practised them myself. Likewise, I am aware of the enormous joys and satisfactions of a truly faithful marriage, and don’t see why one shouldn’t recommend it to others just because in all circumstances one hasn’t been able to enjoy those advantages oneself.

You had an intimate relationship with a woman for over twenty years with your first wife’s knowledge and acceptance. You say: ‘Nothing in my life has meant more to me than this relationship.’ That is quite a large statement…what is it, I wonder, that could have meant more to you than, say, your daughter, or your present marriage in which you describe yourself as ‘lucky beyond all measure or desert’?

I was simply trying to state the truth that this relationship was a very powerful and strong one; I certainly wasn’t downgrading my love for my daughter or anyone else. I really was thinking of it in a special category. Love affairs can assume gigantic proportions in one’s life, and this one most certainly did, and although I don’t want to compare it with other relationships of love, it was a central one for me for a very long time, and still is.

After your account of the libel suit brought against you by Andrew Neil, you expressed regret for some of the harm your writing may have unintentionally done to others who were not your targets, but you quickly recover and insist that journalists must incite. Is this position wholly tenable, would you say?

Once the ink begins to flow and the adrenalin begins to run, you get carried away by the sheer pleasure and excitement of your indignation. This doesn’t render the indignation false, because you feel it very strongly at the time, but when it gets into print you realize in the cold light of day that you’ve probably overstepped the mark, you’ve been unkind to people who don’t deserve it, and you’ve allowed your pleasure in vitriol to overcome your nicer feelings. I think it’s fair to say that you can regret, but you know perfectly well that once the adrenalin gets going again you will commit the same offences.

Like sinning and going to confession…

That’s right, yes.

The court proceedings, as you describe them, contained elements of farce which would have been better suited to a situation comedy rather than the British libel courts. Did you have the feeling that you were caught up in something which was not quite real?

I had the feeling of being caught up in an inexorable process which had very little to do with reality. My libel of Andrew Neil hadn’t done him any harm and never for a moment looked like doing him any harm, except in the sense that by bringing a case for libel against me, he was putting himself at risk. That was the reality, but of course it mightn’t be what the jury could be persuaded to believe, because a good counsel could make it seem as if calling him a playboy was the most dreadful professional slight, and so one was conscious all along that it was a bit of a game, and a deadly game, because vast sums of money could be involved and professional careers could be broken. In that sense it was intrinsically there was a great deal that was laughable, the potential consequences were no laughing matter. It was also a bit of a shock to have one’s fellow middle-class professional colleagues calling on a liar.

Do you think there should be privacy laws, or do you think people in the public eye are fair game?

I don’t believe people in the public eye can be effectively protected from things being said that are unfair without at the same time protecting them from things that are fair and should be said. In practice a privacy law is undesirable because the cure is worse than the disease. That is not to say that there isn’t a lot of injustice arising from going into people’s private lives.

Now that you have retired, or semi-retired, do you have any serious regrets about anything you have written?

No, because I don’t think the consequences of anything that I’ve written amount to a row of beans. I have never believed that columnists or journalists have much influence. I regret saying certain things, because they now seem to me rather stupid, but I don’t take my writing as a journalist remotely seriously. I therefore feel no great guilt about it or any great satisfaction.

In 1983 you declared that you would never accept a gong. You were knighted in 1991. Can you explain what changed your view on this?

What made me change my view was that I liked the idea of getting the gong. Maybe I shouldn’t have liked the idea so much, but I have convinced myself that there is nothing wrong in taking gongs. That view, one of many that I changed when it suited me.

Stephen Glover has described you as ‘almost recklessly honest’. Do you plead guilty?

I think it’s flattery. There’s a great deal more calculation and prudence in my honesty than he gives me discredit for.

Others have suggested you have a vindictive streak. For instance, when Taki went to prison you apparently suggested that he should be sacked…is there any truth in that?

I don’t think that’s vindictive. It’s perfectly proper to take the view that if people do certain things they must expect to be punished. We all like being told that we’re reckless and adventurous and brave, but the praise is quite meaningless unless when we get into trouble we are prepared to take the punishment. Taki smuggles marijuana into the country, and he loves being the kind of person whom everybody calls a buccaneer, a free and easy man who defies convention, but he should take the consequences. When I behaved in an unconventional way, I accepted without complaining that I could not then be made editor went I wanted to be. Taki should do the same.

If you were offered your old job back on the Telegraph would you be tempted, or does life move on?

I feel perfectly unsenile enough to be able to be an editor again, but as you say, life moves on. And in that sense I don’t feel I really understand modern politics, the permissive society, nor indeed the neo-conservative free mark doctrine. I am out of my depth in judging these things as they need to be judged. I wouldn’t any longer be in full and confident command of the subjects on which I would be called upon to write.

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