The latest series of Andrew Rawnsley’s ‘Leader Conference’ on Radio 4 starts tonight…keenly awaited obviously. But having been on the programme a couple of times – though not, funnily, since I did a piece for this magazine about the difficulty a woman has in getting her oar in across the masculine timbre of Danny Finkelstein et al – perhaps I should disabuse you that this admirable series actually replicates what happens in a leader conference. It’s very good, as everything my old friend Andrew does, but just not quite the same as the thing itself. This, I may say, is something of a specialist subject of mine, on account of leader writing being my bread and butter and having done it for different papers. (Ahem, nothing I say should be taken as the opinion of the paper for which I work…)
Anyway, the theory is that you argue every issue from first principles – what do we feel about ‘The Cuts To Government Spending’ sort of thing. Now sometimes that happens, and you have an interesting discussion in which everyone lays down exactly where they’re coming from. But it’s not always that way. In fact, nearly every subject under the sun you’ll have covered already, so what happens sometimes is that you’ll operate in shorthand. As in: “Tube strike….let’s do the cost to business this time, plus maybe reforms to the threshold for strike votes. Maybe touch on the mayor? OK, just asking.” “Ukraine…see it’s spreading to X. Righty-ho, as before.” “The Nigerian girls who were kidnapped…there’s a big march today”. “Eh? Which girls? Oh the Boko Haram ones. Grim, yep, girls education, got you.” “Third…Harry and Cressida? Make it light and sympathetic? Heh, heh. But of course!” That wouldn’t, I grant you, work well on radio.
Indeed it’s rare that an entirely new subject comes up, though sometimes it does – cyber-crime say, for which you go off to the specialist reporter and try to thrash the thing out with him, not being an expert yourself. The gay marriage question was another first when it originally surfaced…obviously this was some time ago, but I remember the exquisite discomfort of trying to argue for sexual complementarity and the importance of potentially procreative sex to a tableful of colleagues. From then on that issue went more or less as follows: “Gay marriage…again? … oh God, must we? Can’t we do bank reform instead? Oh all right.”
In fact quite a few subjects will have the objection “we’ve done that already this week”. To which the invariable answer is, “if we never wrote about anything we’ve done before, we’d be in a pretty tight spot, wouldn’t we?” Then again, you try not to do the same subject twice in a week, or at least not two days running, except on special occasions.
There will be things like the direction of the economy and financial reform where you may have an argument about how things are going, but as I say, the discussions about the fundamentals will have been done months or weeks ago and you know the paper’s underlying take on things; sympathetic to the City, say; or in favour of benefit reforms but dubious about the IT aspect. You’ll rarely have people from entirely different ends of the political spectrum arguing about everything from a completely different perspective; it just wouldn’t work. Then there are subjects that you know people really mind about – Tube or rail fares, say – when you simply have to reflect what people think. It helps in these cases if you’re broke yourself, so your own view is from the ground up as opposed to trying to second guess what broke people might feel about things.
Or there may be a subversive take on a new subject…let’s have more government leaks, sort of thing. In fact, when you can get away with a slightly offbeat take on an issue, you go for it…fresher, that’s what you want. But what you’re never allowed to do is argue for a non-runner: the ultimate put-down for the leader writer is, “it’s just not going to happen”. End of.
The other thing you don’t get in the programme – not all the participants of which will actually be serving leader-writers, remember – are the off-piste, off-colour remarks. As in me, sotto voce, the other day: “wouldn’t it be better for everyone if Assad actually won the bloody war…at least there’d be a chance of the refugees going home”. It’s the kind of sentiment that doesn’t feature in the leader, and you don’t expect it to; you’re just letting off steam.
Then you go away and write something that has as much of your own real opinion as possible, which the editor then identifies and makes you take out. Or, just for a quiet life, you write exactly like you’re meant to.