BY STEWART SLATER
The universe loves a coincidence. Thus, it was only fitting that, in the weekend leading up to Sky’s new series based on Watergate, Britain’s current crop of Woodwards and Bernsteins spent their time screaming “What did ITV know and when did it know it?”
For in comparison to the goings on at This Morning, Partygate was but a trifle. Suella’s speeding fine an amuse bouche. This, people, is a SCANDAL. Apparently, Phillip Schofield, a man whose talents always managed to elude my ability to grasp them, had an affair. With a colleague. Who was a man. Who was younger than him. And he wasn’t completely open about it when asked. If you think this is merely a summary of every page in John Gielgud/Kenneth Williams/Brian Sewell’s diaries, there is more.
For Mr Schofield, whose eminence as the nation’s leading purveyor of televisual services to the unemployed and unemployable gained him the role of mourner-in-chief at the late Queen’s lying in state, was also responsible for an environment that was “toxic”. That’s because he is a narcissist. We know this because a surprising number of presenters on daytime television are actually qualified psychotherapists. You may think they are indulging in 60 seconds of slightly forced banter with their onscreen colleagues, but actually, they are (mentally) putting them on the couch and boring into the deepest recesses of their souls. They know these things.
Nobody, least of all those currently saying, “Well, of course everybody knew but..” had the slightest idea of what was going on. The worst thing is, he hurt that nice Holly Willoughby, everyone’s girl next door – if your neighbour happens to be so inoffensively bland that even a vegan would find them boring and has their own lifestyle brand.
Put it like this, who could deny that L’affaire Schofield is fully worthy of the treatment it has received? Wall to wall coverage, breaking news alerts whenever one of the participants said something on Twitter or Instagram and a blog on the BBC as the programme went to air on ITV. Who can doubt that Lord Reith’s ghost was smiling as his successors paid their journalists to watch television and report on it?
Marcus Aurelius (yes, this may well be the first time anyone has attempted to link Gordon the Gopher’s mate and history’s greatest example of a philosopher-king, last of the Five Good Emperors, but bear with me) said, “The action is important, the context indifferent.” At the risk of slight impertinence (I am not yet, through some cosmic injustice, master of the world’s greatest empire, nor is Richard Harris likely to play me on screen), dear old Marcus was not entirely right on this one. For sometimes, the context tells us whether the action actually is important.
One million. A number like that means nothing on its own. It needs context. For most of human history, a city with that number of residents would comfortably have been the world’s largest, now it would be Birmingham. In pounds, that would buy you a house in London. In yen it would be a month’s rent in Tokyo.
And so, the nation’s media, in a time of inflation and war, have spent the last week throwing resources at a story which they all knew already and which had, beyond its participants, relevance to less than 2% of the population. Well done, lads, cracking use of the licence fee.
But herein lies the rub. For, many of those reporting on the story actually are participants in it. GB News has gone in hard, getting its star evening presenter, Dan Wootton, to interview its star morning presenter, Eamonn Holmes about it. But that old context thing needs to come up again. Mr Wootton wrote in the Daily Mail of leaving ITV after refusing a contract which would have forced him to stop investigating Mr Schofield. Mr Holmes used to work on This Morning and, from his Twitter comments, seems to have let his membership of the Phillip Schofield Fan Club lapse for some reason. Both of them have adopted the guise of fearless truth-tellers, seeking only to have justice done, even if ITV’s heavens fall. But how cynical would one have to be to wonder if there was not the slightest element of score-settling here? How low an opinion of humanity would one need to wonder if the Beeb was not taking the slightest degree of pleasure out of the discomfiting of its main domestic rival? Are Schofield’s travails such a big story because those who tell it benefit by doing so?
But one should never ascribe to conspiracy that which can be explained by bias. For, in today’s spirit of disagreeing with major public intellectuals, Adam Smith was not entirely correct when he wrote, “People of the same trade seldom meet together…but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.” For when people in the same industry meet, they talk about that industry. And they carry on talking about it because they find it interesting. We all hold it self-evident that our activities are both vital and fascinating. Lawyers will witter on about the law, confident that the courts are the axis on which the world turns. Investors will (as my ex-wife would tell you) bore for England on the daily movements of the markets, certain, like Egyptian priests of yore, that the sun depends on their deployment of capital to rise again.
They may not always be right about this – my banker father’s contention that it was fear of the pin-striped denizens of Lombard Street calling in their loans rather than a desire to avoid another insurgency to go along with the one they faced in Afghanistan which stopped the Soviet Union intervening in Solidarity Poland was certainly a view, but it was one he held sincerely.
Those in the media are not, like Fitzgerald’s rich, “different from you and me”. If we find our jobs fascinating, so no doubt, do they. But they have one advantage. Their occupation gives them a platform to spread that view far and wide. And they take it. To be treated to my father’s view on the geo-political centrality of City bankers, one would need to have sat next to him at dinner, to be told of journalists’ fascination with journalism, all one has to do is turn on one’s computer. For the media is full of stories about the media. This might be a bit dull for many of us, but how could it be otherwise? They are writing about what they know and what they find interesting. In their position, we would do no different.
But, as that dullest of superheroes tells us, with great power comes great responsibility. News is meant to inform its consumers of the important events of the day, not the tittle tattle of some overgrown high school clique, however fascinating its members may find it. They may not belong in the same breath as those luminary stars, but to 99% of us, just like Bogart and Bergman’s, Phil and Holly’s problems don’t amount to a hill of beans.
Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.