Frank Johnson RIP
Friday 11th May 2007
I attended a memorial service this morning for Frank Johnson, the first editor of The Spectator to employ me. It was, as Matthew D’Ancona writes here, a glittering occasion, worthy of the great man.
I first encountered Frank as the Parliamentary sketch writer at The Times when I was a news trainee there in 1986. I never got up the nerve to talk to him — he was just a legendary presence that I occasionally caught a glimpse of.
I finally did speak to him in 1998 when I began writing for The Spectator. One of the first pieces I did for him was about Harold Evans’s unexpected departure from Random House — a piece which immediately prompted a furious letter from a firm of solicitors demanding a retraction, an apology, a large sum of money and, bizarrely, a written undertaking from me that I’d never write about Harry or his wife, Tina Brown, ever again in any publication anywhere in the world. If each and all of these demands weren’t met by a particular deadline, both The Spectator and I personally would be sued for libel.
Naturally, I was terrified. I was an occasional freelance contributor to the magazine with no connections to either Frank or the publisher — or, indeed, the proprietor. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for The Spectator to negotiate a settlement with Harry and leave me twisting in the wind — which is very much what Harry expected to happen, I think. I had been warned by everyone in New York not to cross Tina and Harry and it now looked as though I was going to pay the price.
But Harry hadn’t bargained on Frank. In my darkest hour — I’d just been fired by Vanity Fair and the Evening Standard, to compound my misery — Frank called to tell me he that he intended to stand by my story. He was going to fight Harry all the way to the High Court if necessary — he’d already lined up George Carmen to defend our side — and make sure that whatever legal costs I incurred in the course of the battle would be met by The Spectator.
After I’d gotten over my initial shock — no editor of mine before or since has been so supportive — we started to discuss tactics. Actually, that’s not strictly accurate. Frank outlined the battle plan — and I listened. For the next month or so, we waged an unremitting PR campaign against Tina and Harry on both sides of the Atlantic — Frank in London, me in New York. My efforts to make Harry look petty and vindictive were nothing compared to Frank’s. He had no hesitation in using his journalistic contacts to further our cause. It was a model of how to fight a media war. If Heather Mills had had Frank on her team, Paul McCartney would have settled months ago.
Within six weeks it was all over. The threatened libel suit never materialized and Harry agreed to drop all his claims against The Spectator in return for Frank’s agreement to publish a letter from him putting his side of the story. (Amusingly, the letter was twice as long as the original piece.) He never came after me personally.
I later found out that Frank had come under considerable internal pressure to give in to Harry’s demands — mainly from Kimberly Quinn, the magazine’s then publisher. However, Conrad Black was also anxious about it. He didn’t want to get involved in a lawsuit that might cost several hundred thousand pounds if The Spectator wasn’t going to win. In effect, Frank had to vouch for me — and see off considerable internal opposition.
Of course, none of this was prompted by any special feeling for me. Several factors were at play. I think he personally disliked Harry — with good reason, I’m sure. As a journalist-editor, he also thought he should stand by his writers. But, above all, he just relished a good fight. The notion of taking up the cudgels on behalf of a Nobody who was being threatened by a Big Cheese was irresistible. Had Harry made good on his threat and issued a libel writ, I’m sure that Frank would have been as good as his word and contested the case with all his energy. We would have won that, too — and Harry obviously realized this which is why he backed down.
Anyway, the whole experience was absolutely glorious from my point of view. When Frank called me in New York to tell me not to worry I felt as though a good angel had come to my rescue. He did everything a journalist hopes his editor will do in such circumstances — and then some. When I’d eventually conquered my initial fear, the ensuing campaign — with Frank and I kibitzing on the phone on an almost daily basis — was the most fun I’ve ever had in journalism.
My career was at such a low ebb at this point, that without his support I probably would have given up on the profession. But Frank completely restored my faith. His refusal to bow to any of the people pressurizing him to settle the case — and to side with the weaker of the two combatants, even though it was hardly in his own self-interest — demonstrated a courage and integrity that I have yet to encounter again on Fleet Street. As Peregrine Worsthorne said in his address this morning, he was the noblest Roman of them all.
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Spectator Coffee House
Thursday 3rd May 2007
The Spectator has launched its version of Comment Is Free today called ‘Spectator Coffee House’ — and jolly good it looks too. You can link to it by clicking here.
The cover story of this week’s Spectator is by Anne McElvoy who takes both the main political parties to task for not doing more to promote meritocracy.
Without wishing to sound too partisan — I’m the son of Michael Young who coined the word ‘meritocracy’ and whom McElvoy takes to task in her piece — I was disappointed that McElvoy didn’t deal with the two main arguments against meritocracy.
The first is that the only way to guarantee that each person’s socio-economic status is entirely dictated by some combination of ability and effort — and nothing else — is to ensure that everyone starts out on a level playing field. Among other things, this would mean removing children from their parents at birth, imposing 100 per cent inheritance tax, sending all children to identical schools (at least initially) and regulating their early reading and viewing habits. In other words, a society could only be genuinely meritocratic if it was an out-and-out dictatorship — a far more draconian dictatorship than any we’ve witnessed so far.
This points to the second objection — the one Rawls makes in A Theory of Justice. Suppose McElvoy’s response to this is: So what? Meritocracy is so desirable, I’m willing to sacrifice liberty for the sake of it. Then the question becomes: Why is it so desirable? Why is a society in which each person’s status is entirely dictated by their talents any more just than a society in which their status is dictated by the hereditary principle? Assuming people’s talents are given to them at birth — and I include the propensity to work hard among these endowments — they no more deserve their abilities than members of the lucky sperm club deserve their fortunes. Like inhereted wealth, abilities are distributed in a way which is entirely arbitrary from a moral point of view. It follows that a society in which status is dictated by people’s abilities is no more just than one in which it’s dictated by inherited wealth.
Like Anne McElvoy, I was educated entirely in the state sector and then went up to Oxford — and, like her, I would probably do better in a completely meritocratic society than the one we currently live in. (Or perhaps not.) But that doesn’t mean it would be any fairer. Indeed, from a moral point of view, a meritocratic society would be no more just than one in which status was dictated by the throw of a dice.
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Family and Kinship in East London
Wednesday 25th April 2007
‘Family and Kinship in East London’ — the book my father, Michael Young, co-authored with Peter Willmott — has just been reissued by Penguin to commemorate its 50th anniversary. You can link to a piece about the book — and its impact on a generation of social workers, sociologists and local government officials — in today’s Guardian here.
My father’s two best-known books — ‘Family and Kinship’ (1957) and ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ (1958) — are linked in a way that few people will be aware of: the main thesis of each book was contained in a paper he wrote for the Labour Party Research Department in 1951 called ‘For Richer, For Poorer’.
“How extraordinary this is, such good stuff,” wrote Edith Summerskill, the then Minister of National Insurance who was one of the few people who bothered to read it. “What on earth are you going to do with it? It’s not right, is it, for the Labour Party?”
According to my father’s biographer, Asa Briggs, “‘For Richer, For Poorer’ is the most interesting and revealing of all Michael’s writings, seminal for himself as much as for the historian.”
The ideas contained in this paper represent the most sustained burst of intellectual creativity in Michael’s career, a phenomenon he attributed to the benefits of Freudian psychoanalysis. He suffered from depression all his life, but the most acute episode occurred after his first child was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the late 1940s. One of the symptoms of this particular bout was that the world appeared to him in black and white — literally, not metaphorically — and it was only when his depression began to lift that he was able to perceive colours again. It was during this period, in which the world suddenly took on a new vibrancy, that the ideas for the two books began to tumble out of him.
My father continued to suffer episodes of extreme melancholy, but, in a way, he was lucky that his most acute bout occurred before the discovery of anti-depressants. Had he treated his mental illness by taking a pill, as opposed to undergoing psychoanalysis, he never would have written his two most important books.
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Wednesday 28th March 2007
My friend Cathy Seipp died last week. She was a Los Angeles-based journalist who was incredibly kind to me, helping to organise parties in LA for the launch of both my books. She was also very nice to me when I lived in LA for a few months in 2004, introducing me to lots of her journalist friends. Indeed, my whole attitude to LA — which I’m extremely fond of — would be completely different if I hadn’t known Cathy. Not only did she open up the city for me, but she showed me, by her example, that the cliched view of LA, which is that it’s full of kooks and cut-throats, is wrong. There are also people there who are like Cathy — down to earth, honest, level-headed, unimpressed by power, and, above all, beholden to no one. Her only guide when it came to how to behave was her inner code.
All these qualities shone through in her journalism — though what made her so readable was that she could also be wonderfully irrascible and abrasive. She belonged to that class of writers you feel an instant bond with because they are irritated by exactly the same things you are. I often didn’t know anything about the subjects she was writing about, but I instinctively felt that the line she was taking was the right one. I trusted her judgment implicitly.
She was so generous to me — she befriended me after reading How to Lose Friends & Alienate People — that I’ve always felt bad about not doing enough to repay her — and, of course, I’ll be forever in her debt now. LA is going to be a much less friendly place without her.
To read Cathy’s obituary in the New York Times, click here.
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Blast from the past …
Tuesday 27th March 2007
10 years ago I wrote a piece for Spy magazine arguing that canabis shouldn’t be legalised. It was essentially a humour piece, but, weirdly, I seem to have been on the right side of the argument. It was called ‘Ban the Bong’.
To read it, click here.