Simon Walters - Personality drives Politics
Updated: Jun 17, 2019
I talk to Simon Walters, with decades of combined experience at the Sun, the Mail on Sunday, and the Daily Mail - about personality's effect on politics, and journalistic responsibility.
Joining The Sun in 1983, you were tasked with following Neil Kinnock around the world, providing material which was to prove disastrous for his election campaigns. The media’s war on Kinnock’s personality is cited as the thing that drove Alastair Campbell to develop his famous ‘grid’ of media control and spin to protect the next Labour candidate: Tony Blair. Have such tactics only perpetuated a greater level of toxicity in journalism?
Well I’ve followed a lot of politicians around Westminster and around the world, and Neil Kinnock was just one of many. I had a memorable trip round Africa where he got into various scrapes. I consider myself to be a reporter; a newspaper may have an agenda, but it’s a reporter’s job to report about what a politician is up to. I’m sure I’ve written a lot about the scrapes Neil Kinnock got into, I’ve also written a lot about the scrapes that Margaret Thatcher and Tory Prime Ministers have gotten into. But on your point about Alastair Campbell, you’re absolutely right. Neil Kinnock did have a very hostile press – in no small part self-inflicted; but it certainly was a great influence in the way that Alastair Campbell developed the model for public relations with New Labour.
If spin is self-perpetuating in that way, would it have been more useful not to go after personality?
Kinnock was leader of the opposition – what he did was interesting, we reported a lot of it in a critical way. We did the same with John Major. Political reporting is partly about policies, but to suggest that personalities don’t matter in politics, I think, is wrong. They do. And in many ways its what drives policies. And it’s interesting.
Has the focus on personality helped usher in ‘identity politics’ to the detriment of policy altogether?
I’m not sure that’s got anything to do with journalism. What is driving identity politics? Is it the media? Is Donald Trump the creation of the media, is Nigel Farage a creation of the media – we're seeing populism all around the world. I’m not sure that is a creation of journalists or newspapers – I think it’s simply the way the modern world or modern politics has developed.
Does journalism have any part to play in influencing the way that we communicate? With twitter-storms, or the news cycle?
The form of journalism that I do is old-fashioned, traditional journalism. It’s not twitter-journalism. I don’t do social media journalism. To the extent that identity politics is driven by the twitter-sphere or social media, yes to some extent it is, but that’s not the journalism that I do.
The Daily Mail, for which you are now the Assistant Editor, Politics, is often accused of hate-pedaling. Are you driven, at all, by a desire to make readers angry? And if so, why?
I’ve never been driven by pedaling hate, or anything else. I’m a reporter. I’ve never been involved in that type of journalism, and nor would I be. I’m a newcomer here.
Do you not see making people angry as possibly… ‘useful’?
Well you’re putting it in a stilted way. Obviously stories can be provocative, news is often provocative. And that’s what makes a story interesting. But as a reporter, I’ve never set out to make anybody angry about anything. I’ve only set out to get some good stories, hard hitting stories, controversial stories – yes. But the purpose is not to make anybody angry.
Well, the Mail is owned by a media group who aim: “to deliver sustainable returns, over the long-term” – i.e. to pay dividends to their shareholders. Have you ever found the need to sell papers has driven your writing?
The questions you’re asking are not relevant to me. I’m a reporter. I’m not a spokesman for the company. You can ask me about political reporting – and I’ll tell you. But I won’t offer a view on that.
You’re not a spokesman for the Mail. But I think it’s relevant to ask you whether their concerns are your concerns.
Obviously the paper’s got to sell. And I’m employed to make the paper interesting, to make it sell. But my purpose doesn’t go beyond that.
So it doesn’t affect your work?
Ok. So, you are a newcomer here. After 19 years as political Editor of the Mail on Sunday, you followed your Editor Geordie Greig in a move to the Daily Mail in September 2018. Mr. Greig seems to be counting on your support to cut a new editorial line at the paper, encouraging the least-damaging, “pragmatic brexit” approach – and seems set on fighting the pro-Leave hardliners in Government. Within a few weeks of your move, you described Carrie Symonds’ involvement in ‘satanic sex cult theatre’ during her university days, alongside several revealing bikini photos in an article linking her to Boris Johnson – one such Brexiteer – in the aftermath of his divorce. Why?
You’re simply taking one story. I frequently write stories about politicians of all shades of opinion – to take one story in isolation, and suggest that there’s an agenda – there isn’t. I’m a news reporter. That’s what I do. I write about people in public life and what they’re up to, and it doesn’t go beyond that. I wrote that because I thought it was relevant and interesting.
I write about politicians. What they get up to. And sometimes that does involve politicians and their spouses – there’s nothing new in that. And in that instance, I thought it relevant, and reasonable.
I respect politicians, I like them. Most of them are in public life for very good reasons.
Has your attitude changed since 2009, when you decried the “vile” behaviour of Gordon Brown’s spin-doctor Damian McBride, after he was accused of trying to smear David Cameron and George Osborne with information about their private lives?
You mean, asking to what extent is it legitimate for newspapers to report the private lives of politicians?
Yes. You described Damian McBride as ‘vile’ for threatening to use these sorts of personal stories to smear politicians.
Well, that was my comment on one particular instance. I’m not sure what the wider context is.
Is there a parallel between this and your story with Mr. Johnson and Ms. Symonds?
There was nothing vile. There was no smear intended, I’m not sure what the connection is.
Well that makes me intrigued by why you thought people might find the story interesting at all.
From Private Eye, to The Guardian, to The Mail, being a reporter, reporting news, is always a combination of the public and private. One is constantly making a judgement on all these things. They go into making journalism, news, and politics interesting. But one has to be very careful, and sensible. I’ve always tried to do that.
You also got the story about MP Mark Garnier calling his secretary “sugar-tits” and asking her to buy sex-toys for him.
He’s a Conservative MP, it wouldn’t have mattered to me if he was a Labour MP, a Green MP, or a UKIP MP. He was an MP behaving in an inappropriate, mildly scandalous way – and we reported it. That’s just a good story.
However, the instance I brought up about Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds, was released at a time when it was very useful for your newspaper to try and damage Boris Johnson.
You’re making a mistake here – you’re assuming that there’s an agenda. I can tell you, it’s pretty hard getting stories. The idea that that story was run, that there was any agenda – it’s just wrong, it’s a good story, just like the Mark Garnier one was.
Do you find that documenting scandal or intrigue about the private lives of MPs is a successful fomenter of public opinion?
I don’t agree with the premise of your question. I’m not looking for tactics in fomenting anything. I am a news reporter, reporting what’s going on behind the scenes. Sometimes what’s colourful, or maybe scandalous, sometimes it’s salacious – and that’s my role. I’m not setting out to foment anything.
Every single mistake is reported, and can be exaggerated.
Do spin doctors do that?
They have a different purpose. Their purpose is to promote a party or a politician. Journalists have to deal with spin doctors – yes. We use spin doctors to try and get information, to check information. We have to make a judgement on whether we think information is accurate – or whether we’re being spun a lie.
Ok. As somebody without their own agenda, do you ever feel ‘used’ as a journalist?
Um. No. There’s lots of attempts to use journalists all the time – every press release you receive is an attempt to use a journalist. The journalist’s job is to make a value judgement of a press release or a phone call from a spin-doctor, or a politician, and to work out what’s relevant, fair, and newsworthy. And not to be used.
What do you value?
Facts, and information. I’ll look at a story, and try and work out what is new, and what is interesting, and what is relevant.
You’re using a very pejorative word ‘novelty’.
Well you just said new? Fine – something new. Now please, tell me: what is it that you find interesting?
What politicians are actually doing, as opposed to what they say they’re doing. What will make for a lively, controversial newspaper – that sells.
If we didn’t scrutinise the private lives of our representatives, what do you think the public would miss?
People have a right to know if you’re electing someone, of course you’re electing them on a manifesto, but you’re also electing that person for their character. What makes successful politicians is often not their policies. Therefore I think it’s important that people are able to understand that character. If that means reporting some elements of their private lives that they don’t like, I think that’s legitimate, but there are limits.
What are those limits?
I wouldn’t be able to define it, but I think I would know it if you gave me an example of it. And I’m sure that there have been times when I’ve stepped over that limit, but I’ve always tried very hard not to.
You’ve been voted the Society of Editors’ Political Journalist of the Year four times; one of your recent scoops that’s garnered great regard was the “Boris and Gove plot to ‘hijack’ Number 10” from 2017. In a story like this, how do you depict personality through the tone of your writing?
Well I try to represent people as they are. I’m honestly not sure what the tools I use are, other than I’ve reported and known some remarkable characters from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to John Prescott and Mo Mowlam.
The language of it, was what I was interested in. Your choice of adjectives.
I think I know where you’re coming from. I try very hard not to caricature people, I think. I try to be hard hitting and truthful, but fair. I try to avoid trivialising, or belittling people. I respect politicians, I like them. Most of them are in public life for very good reasons, and they need to be treated with respect as well as a degree of scepticism.
Do you think there’s been a cultural shift to respect them less?
I think the expenses scandal left its mark. There’s no doubt about that. But I think if they are respected less, it’s because the 24/7 media, social media, the more they’re exposed – the more vulnerable they become. Every single mistake is reported, and can be exaggerated. A hundred years ago, they were hardly reported at all – which might explain why they were respected more, but were they any better? Or more public spirited? No they weren’t. Were they any less corrupt? No they weren’t.
They’re more scrutinised now than ever, but with that scrutiny – every tiny mistake they make, the public lose respect for them. Familiarity breeding contempt I suspect. I suppose in so far as I’m a political journalist writing about their mistakes – I suppose I’m part of it, I can’t deny that. But I don’t set out simply to dwell on their mistakes.
Sometimes you’re on a knife edge of being able to print something, and then you decide you can’t
In 2011 you wrote an article on the ‘Chipping Norton Set’; which was how you described the “social wing” of the Murdoch media empire. Those in favour with Murdoch would be invited to his daughter’s mansion, and heavyweight journalists hoped to mix with celebrities amongst the cocktails. Do you think that without scrutiny, these sorts of soft-power connections between journalism and politics would allow nepotism a freer rein to flourish?
There’s nothing new about journalists mixing with politicians, let’s be candid about this. Do they sometimes get a little too close – and should that be reported? Yes. I’m a journalist, I mix with politicians – I can’t say I get invited to many cocktail parties, but you have to do it to find out what’s going on.
In your 2004 book Alastair Campbell, co-authored with Peter Oborne, about 50% of your references cite “private information”, i.e. an off-the-record source. To be privy to such a quantity of personal sources puts you very close to many of your subjects; might this closeness cast doubt on your own writing?
No, but I’m glad you’ve raised that. One has to be careful about using ‘private information’, anonymous sources. I hadn’t realised what the proportion was – 50%. I think the reader is right to be wary when there is an overuse of that, I think I can justify it in that instance, but I think it has to be measured.
50% is very high.
It is very high, but I would draw your attention to the fact that there are entire political books written nowadays which have no indexes at all – and no attribution of sources at all, and I think that’s a very, very bad thing. I do use private sources, but if you look at my stories, they are kept to a minimum wherever possible.
Are the ethics of journalism tied to its conduct, and the content of the work itself, purely? Or to the consequences of publishing an article?
The only ethics I go by is to try and report something as accurately, as faithfully, and as interestingly as I can. I have to obey the law, and the rules of the journalistic game. After four decades in the business I think I know what the legal and ethical rules are instinctively. Do I look at a handbook when I’m writing a story, no I don’t. You’d have to take it on a story by story basis, they’re all so very different.
For one, in 2015, why did you ask Liz Kendall how much she weighed?
The context of that was not quite what it seemed. In fact, it was at the end of an interview, and she and I were, there were some jokes told – which she entered into. Part of which was her giving me a pot of marmalade, which we were jesting about at the end – she made some remark about running, I made some remark about her weight, and we all burst out laughing. I put it in my story and there was a great twitterstorm. Liz remains a good friend and contact of mine; it was taken completely out of context. But would I do it now, probably not.
You have to be very sensitive now, because public morals and journalistic ethics – and society’s attitudes, have changed. Journalists do have to be much more sensitive, and that’s a good thing. If you go back twenty or thirty years, if a public figure was a homosexual they were likely to be outed in public life and their whole careers destroyed. Clearly that’s not the case now – and nor should it be. The drawbacks are that sometimes you have to tiptoe round a large number of subjects, and sometimes you can’t be quite as outspoken as you might have been. As you’ve shown with the Liz Kendal interview, one small, light-hearted remark, can easily cause a lot of offence. But generally, this change is a good thing.
How do you judge when to be careful?
I think it’s just instinct. I can remember writing a story about Leveson threatening to resign, about a week or two before I gave evidence - I can remember being terrified. Lord Leveson might have denied the way I characterised what he said, but I assure you: he said what I said he said. There is no doubt about that. And if he hadn't done, I think we'd have had a pretty heavy handed inquiry from his lawyers - and we heard nothing; the story was accurate. For every story you get in the paper, there’s another two or three stories you can’t. Either because you’re not quite certain it’s true, or you can’t prove it – so you have to hold back. A journalists’ career is full of those moments, sometimes getting somewhere – sometimes not, and sometimes you’re on a knife edge of being able to print something and then you decide you can’t.
As an example, in your witness statement for the Leveson inquiry, you explained that John Prescott had told you in confidence that he was bulimic, and you’d decided not to report it. Prescott later did expound upon this in his own biography.
Yes, I remember that vividly. It’s a perfect example. I think he said, “I’ve got that thing that Lady Diana had”, and I said to him discretely “is there any way that I can report this?” And he said absolutely not. Years later, he wrote a book in which he decided to publish the whole thing himself – about his private life. Politicians themselves will write about their private lives when it suits them, which is why journalists like to write about their private lives. But journalists have to abide by certain rules and ethics – which I did – although I must say I slightly regret it. I heard he was putting it in a book, and I then tried to run the story myself, but the lawyers said that I couldn’t, as it was a private medical matter.
The whole spin machine in government has collapsed
The Mail on Sunday, who you worked for at the time, denied the sort of phone hacking that Rupert Murdoch’s papers were under scrutiny for in the Leveson Inquiry, but there continue to be allegations of this sort leveled against them six years later.
All I know is, I’ve never hacked a phone. And I do condemn that sort of phone hacking. At the time there was a three or four year period when there were loads of really big political stories breaking – and I couldn’t work out where they were all coming from. I was being beaten on a regular basis. It was only years later that I realised that some of my rivals were hacking politicians’ phones – I absolutely condemn that.
Political journalism across papers is a competitive business then?
(Laughs) Very. Terrifically competitive.
What effect do you think that has on the writing?
They’ve got to be good. They’ve got to be first. I think healthy competition is a very good thing in newspapers and in all walks of professional life; but you have to operate within the rules.
Can you tell me about any instance from your career that you’ve regretted?
Lots. I regret missing out on the expenses story. I did some of the first investigations into MP’s expenses in 2002, and got Tory MP Michael Trend for £100,000! And at the time nobody touched these kinds of stories. I bitterly regret not sticking with that story. For all journalists, it’s the stories that never got in the paper that later were proved to be true that they regret. It’s a small thing, but the story of Will Self taking drugs on John Major’s plane – I got the story, but the Editor of the Sunday Express wouldn’t run it. Will Self admitted it, pretty much, to me; but his Editor at the time, Will Hutton, did the old boys act with the Editor of the Sunday Express. I think it was leaked a week or two later by the police.
Why do you personally prefer this sort of work than, say, comment journalism?
Because I’m interested in politics, politicians, and writing stories. I’m less interested in shaping opinions.
You did write a novel in 2001.
Yes, people have rather unkindly said that more stories came true in the novel than have been true in the newspapers. The novel was written in 1999, and it was my fictionalised version of what would happen in a second Labour term. It was about the New Labour spin machine really. I’d seen the way the Blair government operated, and I tried to imagine what would happen if that was taken to its logical conclusion. In the book, the Blair-type government collapses because he gets completely out of control with a sense of his own power, and among other things, launches an insane attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein. And it all goes wrong. And that was pretty much what happened with the Iraq War. It was because I’d seen that spin machine.
You’re listed as “prophet without honour in his own country” on your online Muck Rack profile; what do you prophesize about the future nature of spin?
I think we’ve gone from one extreme to the other. With New Labour, part of the reason that the Blair government got completely out of control was partly because the Campbell and Mandelson attempt to control the agenda – and promote the Prime Minister, was so successful that it egged them on to more and more dangerous policies. And we’ve seen where that ended. What we have now is the opposite. The whole spin machine in government has collapsed, with cabinet ministers leaking on a minute-by-minute basis. I think when we’re through this Brexit crisis, somehow, the next government is going to have to find some kind of compromise. To function, it’s got to have some kind of control over its message, and discipline. And it’s going to have to find some compromise between the ridiculously tight and obsessive control of the Campbell years, and the mad, complete absence of control in the Theresa May years.