Francis Beckett

Yesterday I recounted conversations with Clodagh Hartley, Whitehall editor of the Sun.  Since then I’ve found out that she and I are probably the only two people to have had plays produced in London about the MPs’ expenses scandal. 

I’ve also had several conversations with her, and she’s convinced me that she wasn’t trying to bully or intimidate me, which is why yesterday’s blog isn’t there any more. 

She was dreadfully distressed about what I wrote.  I’d forgotten, what I’ve known for years, that many journalists can hand out unfair criticism without ever learning to absorb it. And that explains the difference between our two plays, as well. 

The difference between the two plays goes to the heart of the difference between us, and why we misunderstood each other when she rang me to check a story which was designed to discredit the Fire Brigades Union, whose media work I’m doing during the current strike.

She says she was actually trying to extract from me, as fast and efficiently as possible, the information she needed.  I think that’s true.

So why did I think something different at the time? Partly, no doubt, things about both of us, but that’s not the real point. I suspect she’s – how do I put it? – a bit imperious and naturally disinclined to let one get a word in edgeways.  She might have been frustrated with me: I was overworked, dealing with too many journalists, and (as she says) not handling it well; and, with half a dozen journalists to phone back, I’d instinctively have put the Sun at the bottom of my to-do list, because I know that it doesn’t matter what I say to them, we’re going to get a kicking anyway. (And we did, of course.)

But that’s a tiny part of it.  The real reason was that I was probably ready to expect bullying the moment I knew I was talking to a Sun journalist, because the Sun is a bullying newspaper. It bullies sad starlets who can’t fight back, Big Brother contestants, trade unionists, politicians it doesn’t agree with, and it glories in its power to bully.

Of course that doesn’t mean its reporters are natural bullies. One should beware of this sort of mistake.  I remember once, working temporarily on the Mirror with its then education correspondent Richard Garner, going to the Department of Education.  As we waited in the lobby, a short, thick-set man with a shaven head and tattoos came in, swaggering and swearing, and Richard whispered to me: “That’s the education correspondent of the Sun.”  And you know what – I didn’t realise Richard was joking. 

But she works for a paper that bullies by instinct.  And in the dying days of the last parliament, along with other papers, it was bullying MPs, who were unable to fight back because there was an election in the offing. And this brings us to our two plays.

I’ve no brief for MPs who fiddle their expenses. I think they’re a disgrace.  But I was appalled at the self-righteous bullying they got from newspapers, and my play reflected this.  The expenses-fiddling MP at the heart of my play, Claim and Shame (which Clodagh apparently has seen) is a not entirely unsympathetic character.  At least one of the journalists was essentially a bully, and it questions the ethics of journalism.

I’d been rather sickened by the way politicians were being kicked around by newspapers which knew they could not hit back.

Her play Stiffed (and I much regret I didn’t see it, though I’d intended to) seems from the crits to have been less counter-intuitive.  According to Michael Billington in the Guardian (and one day I hope she‘ll tell me how she got Michael Billington along to review it) “our naive hero finds that virtually everyone is fiddling expenses. Rich Tories are claiming for moat cleaning, and even Labour's female chancellor has apparently been paying for her husband's porn films out of the public purse. So Quentin does the honourable thing and shops his fellow MPs to the Daily Telegraph.”

So – yes, I understand how deeply Clodagh was upset by my remarks yesterday.  Does she understand how upset and angry the members of the Fire Brigades Union were about the story she ran the same day?  And how little chance they have to reply to it?  They can sit in their fire stations and fume, and throw things at the television, and if they vent their anger on the streets, they will be caught by cameras, and the Sun will be able to give them another kicking.

Still, Clodagh isn’t a natural bully. She’s a talented writer, and I hope she will not stay so long at the Sun that the poison enters her soul, and she ceases to be hurt by that sort of accusation.