Earlier this week, there was a widely circulated picture of two middle aged men going for an early morning jog in Manchester. Some of the commentary dwelt on the floral running shorts worn by the foreign secretary, but most of it focused on the identity of his running companion – who turned out to be the editor of The Sun – and the observation that it all looked a bit too cosy.
Is that fair? Can’t senior editors be friends with politicians? Since some of them might have gone to school / university together, or in the case of our two joggers, probably worked together at the Daily Telegraph, it’s perhaps a bit much to expect otherwise, but can editors retain the necessary degree of professional detachment if they are friends with those they write about?
Imagine the raised eyebrows if President Trump was photographed enjoying a round of golf with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Mueller’s judgement would be called into question and his whole investigation compromised.
George Orwell wrote: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” Can readers of The Sun rely on their paper to publish stuff the foreign secretary doesn’t want publishing, or is the Sun’s coverage of him now just “public relations”?
Proximity can be a problem for those lower down the pecking order too. Take Noam Chomsky’s observation on ‘embedded’ journalists: “No honest journalist should be willing to describe himself or herself as 'embedded'. To say, 'I'm an embedded journalist' is to say, 'I'm a government Propagandist.”
Perhaps the maxim for newspaper editors should be: don’t be friends with anyone who could be tomorrow’s front page lead.