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Lessons from Cheltenham

At the Cheltenham Festival in 2005, I had one of the more surreal experiences of my working life – perhaps more surreal still, in light of what has happened since.

It was Gold Cup Day – Friday 18th March – but it was memorable for the fact that I was, with my colleague Martin Cruddace, co-hosting a table at lunch which comprised Betfair’s co-founder Andrew Black, the then editor and now MD of the Racing Post, Alan Byrne, and the following group of national newspaper editors past and present: Piers Morgan; Richard Wallace (the then editor of the Daily Mirror) and his then deputy Conor Hannah; Rebekah Wade (then at the Sun); Simon Kellner (at the time, the editor of The Independent); and Andy Coulson (who was still at the News of the World).

I was reminded of that famous day yesterday when I read the astonishing article in the Guardian entitled, “People despise politicians – but whose fault is that?”. Written by Chris Huhne, the answer was, “not mine”. And then, in a bit more detail, “the Murdoch press”. If you can’t be bothered to read the whole piece, do not, at least, miss this paragraph – but turn on the violins before you do:

Given that I was falling in love with someone who was not my wife, you might think that it was an act of folly to court Murdoch’s hostility, but the journalist in me rebelled. Publish and be damned. If I was not in parliament to speak out when I saw an abuse, why was I there?

What bravery and romance, I thought. And then my mind went back to that day at the races – not to recall how a poor day’s punting was salvaged by my having a bit of cash on Kicking King, but because of the way that the chat had turned, after a few glasses of wine, to a round-table discussion about who  all of them had a story on that had never been published. To a man and woman, they all had the same name; and each of them had more than one tale about him. In fact, without a word of a lie, I remember Rebekah Wade rolling her eyes and saying that, “if I have one more person call and tell me he’s unsafe in an empty lift, I might give up the job.” Now there’s one for the counter-factualists…

That aside aside, though, I tell the story not to reveal who it was – although there has still been nothing in the press about him, eight years on, and he’s still as high profile as he ever was – but because of the interesting bit that happened next. Inevitably, we asked why none of them had published, particularly given that, with all of them having the story, there had to be a danger that one of them would run it as a scoop.

And almost in unison, they came out with the same response: because everyone liked him. Hard though it may be to believe, the unanimous verdict was that the guy in question might not keep it in his pants, but he had so many brownie points in his locker that unless he started to break the law, it was never going to be splashed across the press.  It helped, they said, that he never preached to anyone, nor pretended he was a saint; but he was saved more because his reputation was that he was an all-round good bloke, rather than – as I once heard a peer describe another more recently-enobled – an ocean-going shit.

So I thought of that story when I read Chris Huhne’s piece yesterday, and I thought about it again today when I read Richard Littlejohn’s rejoinder.  Because I suppose I should consider the possibility that Chris Huhne – just because he was a politician – would have been seen as fair game for any misdemeanour, however lovely a chap he was. But somehow, I can’t help but think that the lesson I learned at Cheltenham still holds.

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