On the assisted political suicide of John Prescott

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 7 July 2006.

Mired in political scandal, including the “Domegate” affair with billionaire American businessman Philip Anschutz, John Prescott is clearly a dead man walking. The Deputy Prime Minister’s days in office are, I fear, numbered as the hairs on the top of Michael White‘s head, and journalists and the public smell blood. This is all good stuff, but John Humphrys‘ handling of the BBC Radio interview with Prescott on the Today programme raises issues of journalistic ethics that I fear are being overlooked in the rush to finish off the career of an unpopular politician.

My focus here is not on John Humphrys’ interviewing style, but rather the rights and wrongs of journalists delving into the private lives of public figures, and especially those of politicians already wounded by political scandal. I refer by way of example to Humphrys’ persistent questioning in the Today interview about John Prescott’s alleged extra-marital liaisons. When asked by Prescott why he was pursuing this particular line of questioning, Humphrys responded that he was merely giving the Deputy Prime Minister an opportunity to clear things up. Prescott was clearly unimpressed with that answer, and, possibly for different reasons, so too am I.

Make no mistake, the reporting of John Prescott’s inappropriate and adulterous relationship with his diary secretary was justified owing to the potential conflict of interest involved, but with all the political scandal surrounding Prescott, is it right for the media to follow up allegations of sexual affairs that he may have had with women outside his sphere of work? Such intrusions into Prescott’s private life amount, in my view, to unwarranted violations of privacy. And what about the feelings of Pauline Prescott in all of this?

I am not in favour of a privacy law forbidding such revelations, but rather call for journalists to use better judgement. The exposé of John Prescott’s affair with his secretary was enough, as that, along with the Deputy Prime Minister’s rather informal dealings with a tycoon looking to put a super casino in the Millennium Dome, and his many other mistakes while in office, is surely enough to seal his fate. Even if one detests the man, why continue to put the boot in with more attacks on his private life? Marital infidelity may say something about a person’s moral compass, but in the case of Prescott this is beside the point now that more than enough damage has been done to sink his political career.

When reporting on political life, does anything go? If not, where do we draw the line? As for the argument that journalists must pursue all leads, this is nothing but an abdication of responsibility. Journalists, whether they be celebrities such as John Humphrys or faceless reporters with local rags, do not have to follow up leads from other journalists, or partisan political bloggers such as Iain Dale. They choose what to cover, and are paid to do this in a professional manner. And contrary to the claims of Dale and others, bloggers, while subject to the same libel laws as mainstream journalists, are unlikely to be sued by their victims precisely because of their lack of corporate support. That is, if they are sued for libel, and are not wealthy individuals, it is likely that any damages awarded will be relatively small in comparison with legal costs incurred by the plaintiffs, in which case victory may be pyrrhic.

In the Today interview we saw John Humphrys wind up John Prescott over Domegate to such a degree that the Deputy Prime Minister started babbling incoherently, at which point Humphrys tossed in a political hand grenade with his persistent questioning of Prescott over the latter’s alleged Ugandan discussions. Up until then I had been relishing Prescott’s obvious discomfort, but thereafter I almost, but not quite, felt sympathy for the man. My own feelings aside, it cannot be right and proper for an experienced journalist such as John Humphrys to exploit in a radio interview a story from a Conservative activist and blogger who has acknowledged that there is no hard evidence to back up the allegations contained therein.