Wed 22 September 2021

Exclusive to print for a month, Peter Oborne shares his observations of the political media class. For the latest diary subscribe to the September Digital Edition

Changing Channels

WHAT’S THE POINT OF IAN KATZ, the grotesquely overpaid director of programmes at Channel 4? The broadcaster has been marked down for privatisation. Any journalist of guts and spirit would hit back with exposes of the greed, venality, cronyism, structural lying and demented transatlantic ideology of Boris Johnson’s Government. I’ve looked at the recent programmes put out by the channel’s formerly well-regarded Dispatches current affairs strand – for which I used to report – and it’s stopped causing trouble (by contrast Channel Four News has maintained its strong reputation). With it being under threat, I guess that the channel has chosen not to anger the Government. 

Katz – a former deputy editor of the Guardian – earns more than half a million a year, while his boss Alex Mahon gets just under a million. By contrast,Tim Davie, who as Director-

General of the BBC does a far more demanding job than Mahon and Katz put together, earns less than either of them – £429,000. The morally disgusting salaries paid to senior Channel 4 executives suggests that, in more ways than one, something’s gone horribly adrift at its Horseferry Road HQ – raising questions, whether under current leadership, the channel deserves to maintain its current status. 

On the other hand, with Katz and Mahon in charge, ministers may decide it’s safe to leave Channel 4 as it is.

Golden Era

I NOW TURN TO serious reporting of the kind Channel 4 at its best used to do. No praise is too great for the forensic way in which Tom Burgis, of the Financial Times; and Gabriel Pogrund, of The Sunday Times, have investigated Boris Johnson’s fundraising methods. 

One unexpected side-effect of their scrutiny has been to bring to light the remarkable political legacy of the late financier Jimmy Goldsmith. Conservative chairman Ben Elliot, who manages relations with  donors, is a childhood friend of Jimmy Goldsmith’s son Zac. Meanwhile, Lord Zac Goldsmith is a minister and party donor who – according to the Daily Mail – has advised Johnson on personal financial problems. Home Secretary Priti Patel was a press officer in Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party. Carrie Johnson, the Prime Minister’s wife, is director of communications for the Aspinall Foundation – a wildlife charity which curates endangered animals at Howletts Zoo, set up in the 1950s by John Aspinall. Aspinall, a famous gambler, was part of the insouciant, super-rich Clermont Set alongside Jimmy Goldsmith. According to the Financial Times, this gambling tradition survived. The newspaper reports that Ben Elliot used to play regular poker with the Goldsmith brothers at Crown London Aspinalls, a Mayfair gaming club. Meanwhile, John Aspinall’s son Damian is chairman of the Aspinall Foundation which employs Carrie Johnson.

In the 1970s, Jimmy Goldsmith’s Clermont Set was on the outer fringes of British politics. Courtesy of Boris and Carrie Johnson, its descendants are at the heart of Downing Street.

Chain Joker

I MAINTAIN A LIST OF BORIS JOHNSON’S LIES and have been puzzling about what to make of his proposal on 28 July that chain gangs should be deployed as a punishment for anti-social behaviour. 

It is impossible. The chain gang disappeared from the British penal system in the mid-19th Century, when the transportation of felons to Australia was ended. It had a much longer life in the United States, where it was disproportionately targeted at black people and allowed white-controlled states to extort free labour from them after the formal abolition of slavery. 

The last two countries known to have used chain gangs regularly are mainland China and Myanmar, the penal systems of which have few admirers. So why did Johnson invoke this idea? 

He has frequently flirted with racism as a writer and politician, and he might have hoped to use the image of black people manacled and chained to reinforce his appeal to white supremacist voters in our country. 

More charitably, it was an example of contemporary ‘poser politics’, in which politicians adopt a policy that they have no intention of applying in order to pose as the representative of a key strand of public opinion. Chain gangs will soon join that dismal Valhalla of bad ideas by the Prime Minister – alongside London’s garden bridge, its island airport, or the Brexit bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland – and consolidate his reputation as an incompetent lightweight whose interventions on any subject are a waste of the nation’s money and energy.

Lingard’s Life Advice

LAST MONTH, I WROTE ABOUT CRICKETING SCHOOLMASTER Lingard Goulding, who has hung up his boots aged 80. Last weekend, I bumped into him watching a match near Kilkenny. As the opening batsmen walked out to face the bowling, Lingard instructed them “head down, play straight, as in life”. Beautiful advice. 

Prisonhouse of Truth

MY FRIEND CRAIG MURRAY, who as British ambassador to Uzbekistan blew the whistle on British complicity in torture, has been sent to jail. 

I miss him dreadfully. Apart from Julian Assange, no one has done more to expose coalition crimes during the ‘War on Terror’. Indeed, Craig’s account of the Assange hearing last year was a masterpiece of court reporting (and can still be found on his blog). 

Now, both Assange and Murray are in jail, in each case for reasons that are beyond me. Two years ago, Craig and I made an exhilarating journey together up the Indus Valley. Inshallah we will resume the journey once Ambassador Murray, one of the greatest truth-tellers of our time, is a free man once again. 


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