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21 April 1997

Self sacrifice in the Observer sleaze scandal

James Heartfield explains why the Observer threw journalist Will Self to the Lions

'There is a prevailing morality which dominates this election campaign. I don't want to attack the Guardian/Observer newspapers because I do think their campaign about financial corruption is correct, but I do abjure the anti-libertarian tone which says you must behave in certain ways.'

Will Self was explaining to the Independent on Sunday how the Observer sacked him for snorting a line of heroin on the Prime Minister's election jet. Self, after lying low, admitted the offence to Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger and Observer editor Will Hutton and was promptly sacked.

And why not, you may ask? Snorting heroin on the Prime Minister's jet if not wrong in itself, was surely putting the reputation of the Observer at risk. But the truth is Hutton knew exactly what the risk was when he sent Self to cover John Major's election campaign.

'I'm a hack hired because I do drugs', explained Self. His reputation as a risque writer has been made writing novels of the junkie world he once inhabited. He is known for taking risks. When the Observer put Self on the Prime Minister's place they knew what they were doing.

It was a cute idea. Self's louche personality would be a contrast to John Major's stuffed shirt. How daring. But in the end it was Will Hutton who ended up behaving like a stuffed shirt.

In a self-righteous editorial Hutton justified sacking Self by saying that it was not so much the heroin as a question of trust. Get real! The man is a heroin user. Hutton surely does not expect Self to own up to using a Class A drug and risk imprisonment.

The truth is that the Observer has been hoist by its own petard. It was the Observer and the Guardian that made 'trust' the defining feature of the election - at the expense of any discussion of policy. Concentrating their fire upon 'Conservative sleaze', was bound to backfire. As the Will Self episode illustrates journalists are unlikely to be sleaze-free.

Will Self is right to point out the prevailing moralism in this election campaign, but reluctant to admit that it was the Guardian/Observer campaign on Sleaze that did most to crank it up.

Will Hutton's editorial blathers on about the issue of trust like a born-again Christian - a long way from the daring editor who wanted to frighten the Prime Minister with a representative of the drug culture. Instead, Hutton threw Self to the lions, when it was he who should have taken the blame. But that is what Britain would be like if the Observer has its way. Everybody would have to be on their best behaviour for fear offending the new moralism of the anti-sleaze campaigners, and ratting on your friends and associates would be the order of the day.

Meanwhile in Tatton the Guardian reports that their anti-sleaze candidate Martin Bell is just too nice and too honest to play the political game. The Guardian's campaign to attack sitting Tory MP Neil Hamilton on the sleaze issue - at the expense of challenging his policies - looks wobbly. So the Guardian has decided to get its excuses in early by blaming the voters:

'They can't blame the man in white, whose only crime is to be unstained by the black art of politics. They know that if Mr Hamilton wins, the blame will rest on the voters.'
In that event, perhaps the Guardian should dissolve the Tatton constituency and elect another?

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