21 April 1997
Self sacrifice in the Observer sleaze scandal
James Heartfield explains why the Observer threw journalist Will Self to
'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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