On balance, it was probably not a very good idea for Lady Black, in the early days of the trial of her husband Conrad, to call a Canadian TV producer a “slut”. Nor was her subsequent characterisation of the entire journalistic profession as “vermin” particularly sensible or well-timed. As Barbara Amiel, Lady Black was once a columnist herself and her husband was a newspaper proprietor. Since he now faces the possibility of spending many years in jail if found guilty, it was, one might think, a moment to cultivate friends in the press rather than trashing them.
Admittedly, the Blacks had been on the receiving end of a comprehensive duffing-up in the press. He has been portrayed as a monstrous, overbearing robber-baron while she is presented as the unholy conflation of Lady Macbeth, Mata Hari and Imelda Marcos.
But, in a sense, Lady Black was right. There has indeed been something verminous – or, rather, hyena-like – about the way the press has behaved. Those who have enjoyed the Blacks’ hospitality during their glory years in London have, in their accounts, managed an unattractive combination of name-dropping and back-stabbing. Former employees of Black have been among the first to rat on him. He claims that only three friends in the press – William Rees-Mogg, Dominic Lawson and William Oddie – have remained loyal.
The pack instinct of journalists when the smell of blood is in their nostrils is partly to blame here, but there is something else at work. We are living through a particularly prim age in which those on the inside, members of a self-regarding media establishment, view outsiders with an extraordinary contempt. Never has breaking the rules, behaving in a manner deemed irresponsible by the sensible, law-abiding majority, caused such shudders of fear and disgust in the press.
Failure, it occurred to me this week, is now often confused with not fitting in. Describing the writer Willie Donaldson, of whom I have just written a biography, the respected journalist Anthony Holden confidently asserted that he was a man who had “footled his life away”. The Today programme featured a small discussion around whether someone who had behaved in the way Willie had deserved to be the subject of a biography.
There is something very contemporary about this air of disapproval. In a life full of setbacks, wrong turnings and disasters, Donaldson had nonetheless published Sylvia Plath when he was 22, produced Beyond the Fringe, was among the first to recognise the talent of Spike Milligan, Terry Jones, Marty Feldman, Michael Palin and others.
Becoming a writer at the age of 40, he went on to produce some of the funniest books of the past half-century, working virtually to the day he died. Before virtually anyone else, he was alert to the world of celebrity and public sentimentality in which we now live. As a life, his may have been shambolic and even shocking, but it was hardly footling.
No two men of our time can have been quite so different from one another as Conrad Black and Willie Donaldson, but the attitude of journalists to them has had a surprising amount in common.
The distaste shown towards Black has had less to do with any alleged criminality than the way he lived his life. As a newspaper proprietor, he was expected to behave in an appropriate manner and failed to do so. Donaldson, with his wit and education, made a name for himself as literary tease in the early 1980s but then, as soon as he was embraced by the media establishment, began to break the rules by going too far with his jokes, confessing too much about his private life, taking unacceptable drugs.
The English rather like a ne’er-do-well, so long as he conforms to type. Oliver Reed did a nice turn as a showbiz lush while Jeffrey Bernard earned a decent living as the acceptable face of alcoholism. In their own unsteady way, both played the parts expected of them.
Men like Black and Donaldson are vilified principally because the way they have lived their life refutes the myth, so comforting to the conventionally-minded, that success is a matter of building up a reputation within an accepted area, all the while avoiding the embarrassing, the illegal, the confusingly independent.
In a timid age, with the ever-alert offensiveness police on all sides, one would like to think that journalists would, without condoning bad behaviour, at least recognise that the best of life, as well as the worst of it, comes from colour and diversity, from people who are different. Strangely, down among the rodents, the opposite seems to be the case. More and more, an unpleasant whiff of sanctimonious disapproval issues from within the comfy confines of the media establishment.