A man of his Times - the curious case of Lord Finkelstein

George Osborne’s friend at the Times embodies the collapse of boundaries between the media and politics

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

Thomas Barnes, who edited the Times from 1817 to 1841, declared that the ‘newspaper is not an organ through which government can influence people, but through which people can influence the government.’

There have been periods when principle guided the Times — for instance when the great war correspondent W.H. Russell exposed government incompetence in the Crimean War. At other times the newspaper has a tendency to become the organ of official opinion, impartially supporting any political party (just so long as it happens to be the one in power).

Ten years ago its political pages resembled a New Labour noticeboard. As Tony Blair fell and a Conservative government started to look likely, the Times editor, James  Harding, appointed Daniel Finkelstein chief leader writer.

Mr Finkelstein is a decent, highly intelligent man, who lacks an ounce of malice. He has spent his life in politics, working first for Lord (David) Owen, then as head of research at Conservative Central Office under John Major, and later as a political adviser to William Hague. No murmurs of disapprobation were heard six weeks ago when he was elevated to the House of Lords.

Perhaps there should have been. For all his genuine kindness and geniality, there is something troubling about Lord Finkelstein. As with many  members of the political class, it is hard to discern where his allegiance lies. There are many examples of this conflict of loyalties.

In the early part of 2011 Daniel Finkelstein became chairman of Policy Exchange, the Conservative think tank. In discussions leading up his appointment, it became clear that the time he could give to the task was limited – due to his Downing Street workload, not because of his formal role as chief leader writer of the Times.

Lord Finkelstein is close to the Prime Minister. At the start of the Leveson Inquiry, David Cameron submitted lists of all the media figures he had met since entering Downing Street. Finkelstein’s name was not on it. Once on the witness stand he gave a very curious explanation: it emerged that Mr Finkelstein was part of a small number of journalists that ‘I see very regularly and I’m never going to remember to tell my office every time I see them.’

(Mr Cameron named five more such journalists, three of whom worked for the Times. One, Christopher Lockwood of the Economist, has since joined the No. 10 Policy Unit.)

Lord Finkelstein is, however, closer by far to George Osborne. One senior Times writer told me three years ago that he spoke ‘six or seven times a day. probably more’ to the Chancellor. Mr Osborne once reportedly remarked that he spoke to Mr Finkelstein more often then he did to his wife. But when Mr Osborne appeared in front of Lord Justice Leveson, the following exchange occurred:

Q. ‘Does he [Finkelstein] act for you as a sort of unpaid adviser and/or speech writer?’

A. ‘No, he’s just a very good friend.’

The Chancellor was asked whether Finkelstein ever helped ‘in the drafting of your statements and speeches’.

The answer came back: ‘I talk to him about politics, like I do my other friends, and he occasionally provides good one liners and jokes.’

Lord Justice Leveson did not challenge this account, which was given under oath, but others are less convinced. Three years ago Paul Waugh, a political journalist, reported that ‘on the train back from the Labour conference in Liverpool last week Daniel was said to be overheard talking rather loudly on his mobile. First he called to arrange a taxi from Euston to No. 10. He then apparently rang his mother to say that he was too busy writing George Osborne’s conference speech.’

When Mr Waugh checked with ‘friends of Daniel’, he met with denials that he wrote the speech. However, Waugh was later able to establish that he ‘did indeed play a key role in the drafting team’.

On the eve of last year’s reshuffle, Iain Duncan Smith was watching Newsnight when Mr Finkelstein said he should be moved. Certain that Finkelstein was speaking for Osborne, Duncan Smith thereafter refused to budge (Finkelstein afterwards insisted he was only expressing his own opinion).

Political journalists have long scanned Mr Finkelstein’s columns for guidance about the Chancellor’s thinking. There is an uncanny congruity of views. Over the last few weeks Daniel Finkelstein mounted a strong defence of HS2, the high-speed rail link and also for military intervention in Syria, both pet enthusiasms of the Chancellor.

One insider told me that ‘what Danny writes today George thinks tomorrow’. This is a reversal of the normal order of precedence, whereby articles by journalists reflect what they have been told by politicians. But Mr Finkelstein is the intellectual and moral superior (and former boss) of the Chancellor, and informed people know that.

So Mr Finkelstein must often have found himself in the position of commenting on a speech that he had  helped to draft. To summarise: George Osborne himself might as well have been personally present at Times leader conferences during the years when Daniel Finkelstein was in charge. Good luck to the Chancellor, some will say. But Times readers were kept in the dark. At one stage, Rupert Murdoch himself grew so concerned about the situation (and the Times’s soft editorial stance) that he started to speak to candidates who would replace Finkelstein. But nothing came of it.

From 2008 onwards Mr Finkelstein became a significant part of the enormous blob that incorporated the Cameron Conservative party, a powerful group of orphaned Blairites, and the Murdoch empire. As GQ magazine once put it: ‘Nothing happens at The Times without his input.’ When Rebekah Wade was promoted to head News International, Finkelstein was on hand to describe her as a ‘very charismatic, almost enchanting personality and that is very good for the business’.

He defended Andy Coulson, who had earlier resigned as editor of the News of the World, when he joined the Conservative party as media chief, and claimed there had been only a ‘handful’ of phone-hacking victims. This statement was true to the official Murdoch/Cameron/Osborne corporate doctrine. Whether it was completely true to anything else may be more questionable. But speaking truth to power (the most honorable and worthwhile function of any journalist or newspaper) is not an idea that Daniel Finkelstein readily comprehends.

When Mr Coulson (who faces criminal charges relating to phone hacking,  also perjury) resigned from Downing Street two years later, Finkelstein told Times readers: ‘Outside Westminster, very few people have heard of Mr Coulson and even fewer care about him and the questions about phone hacking. Mr Cameron’s team were confident that they could let the story go on and on without it damaging their political standing. And, even now they are reasonably certain that the story will not prove all that damaging. Voters will dismiss it as boring political gossip, remote from their lives.’ As ever Finkelstein was parroting the views of his friend George Osborne (and, of course, vice versa).

But when the journalist Heather Brooke campaigned for MPs to publish their expenses, Daniel Finkelstein was less sympathetic. He complained about attempts to force MPs into ‘scouring the petty cash receipts’.  Even when the Telegraph revealed the staggering scale of parliamentary greed and corruption his Times leader column still stuck up for bent MPs.

As any newspaperman will recognise,  Daniel Finkelstein has never in truth been a journalist at all. At the Times he was an ebullient and cheerful manifestation of what all of us can now recognise as a disastrous collaboration between Britain’s most powerful media empire and a morally bankrupt political class. He is, however, a powerful manifestation of the post-modern collapse of boundaries between politics and journalism. Thomas Barnes would never have allowed Daniel Finkelstein near the paper. If somehow he had intruded, he would have had him thrown out. James Harding was the editor who let him in — and carries a great deal of the blame.

The wretched Harding was notable for two things besides Finkelstein. The paper’s circulation sank by 40 per cent during his time in charge. Harding was offered, and turned down, the MPs’ expenses story, which was later brilliantly exploited by the Daily Telegraph. Late last year Rupert Murdoch sacked Harding, but happily he soon found a new post as head of news and current affairs at the BBC.

The Times has a new acting editor in John Witherow, a proper newspaperman who is said to be unamused by Finkelstein and is now attempting to ‘de-Fink’ the paper (Finkelstein remains a columnist, but has no executive power). Meanwhile, we should all thank David Cameron for recommending his old chum to the peerage and finally making an honest man of Lord Finkelstein of Pinner, who will fit in well at the House of Lords: there are a lot of people in there just like him.

As for Mr Harding, the BBC head of news, someone should order him to sit down and write out one thousand times the words of the legendary Washington correspondent Arthur Krock:  ‘The price of friendship with a politician is too great for any newspaperman to pay.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Peter Oborne is the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator and an associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • anyfool

    This is one of the many reasons for newspapers circulation collapse, no one in the industry seems to think that comment and the reports should reflect reality, they all put their own spurious slant on truth, a real newspaper that actually told the truth and laid out a policy of real independence unlike the Independent it might arrest their slide into oblivion.

  • Plato

    I happen to really value the insight Danny Fink offers – this strikes me as a mean spirited attack on someone who in most likelihood won’t return fire because he’s too nice to do so.

    • TheBasicMind

      Did principle just fly directly over your head without pause ?

  • patrickinken

    What an unpleasant article.

  • Ad Pikett

    Fink is great, but Peter is right. Just because he’s a good bloke, does not mean he should simultaneously live in the Forth estate and the government.

    And its about time they stopped creating lords willy nilly. At this rate every other person in the UK is going to be in the other place.

    • vvputout

      ‘Forth estate’!!!

      • Ad Pikett

        Ahem fourth!!! Making a typo doesn’t mean I’m not right though!

      • Colin

        Political / Media Complex, more like…

      • headgirlblues

        Froth Estate, perhaps…..

        • Shoe On Head

          frothy lords

    • rtj1211

      They made him a Lord for services to the Conservative Party.

      He didn’t have to bung them cash, he just reminded them of what he had done and the power of his pen to shape public opinion in 2015…….

  • TheTortorian

    Oborne is saying: Journalists influencing government= Good. The Fink influencing government= Bad.

    I detect sour grapes which may or may not be linked to excessive alcohol consumption.

  • Shoe On Head

    de-fink will be da-funk’d. finky-babe is a sweet natured man.

    c’mon. this is nothing new.

    we all know this

    daily telegraph: (as someone here commented)
    “tatler with graphs”.

    daily mail:
    dacre’s moralistic mein kamph with a 12-week diet plan.

    the times (tabloid edition):
    murdoch’s inflight magazine

  • telemackus

    I thought Oborne was a conservative but he seems to have morphed into a combination of Milband and Mandelson. A very mean spirited article that does him no credit.

    • Anne-marie Pickup

      It isn’t that Oborne isn’t a conservative (anyone who has read anything by him can see that he clearly is) but this isn’t a left right issue, it is what the proper role of journalist.
      A proper journalist should have no other allegiances except to the truth, his editor and him/herself

  • keith

    great piece peter, to many journalist think its there job to be friends with politicians and not inquisitors. just look at the Damien McBride story, journalist who happily took all those stories he was placing, the nick Robinsons and Adam Boultons of this world are now feigning innocence or shock. when they are part of that cosy cartel that excepts of the record briefings they are part of the system

    • John Clegg

      Well said Keith, most journalists, and the BBC in particular, are far too cosy with politicians. (what’s the expression about supping with the devil and needing a long spoon?)

    • rtj1211

      John Cole wasn’t like that, but he was certainly on the inside of Governments of all hues. Different generation, different ethics.

      • keith

        that’s so true, even watching paxman now he looks tired of it all, the only journalist worth watching doing any interview of politicians is Andrew Neil

  • CN

    For those complaining that this is “mean spirited” – are you saying the article is untrue, or true but shouldn’t be written because you like Danny Finkelstein?

    • Shoe On Head

      a lot of truth in this.

      oborne is doing his job as a journo. reporting on close ties.

      is this anything beyond access journalism? maybe.

    • patrickinken

      I do enjoy Finkelstein’s writing.

      But Oborne’s article is unpleasant and mean spirited because it argues that Finkelstein’s behaviour is immoral and that he is disloyal. The premise seems to be that a journalist should only be a journalist and a politician should only be a politician. Only then can a journalist be moral and loyal.

      Why? On the face of it because Thomas Barnes said so in the early nineteenth century. And Finkelstein is a manifestation of post-modernity, which must be bad.

      But Oborne’s article suggests that he has other motives (for all that he writes of Finkelstein’s genuine kindness and geniality).

      • mikewaller

        He is not saying that at all. His point is that if journalists do not maintain a critical distance between themselves and the powerful, we are all lost. That said, I feel far more threatened by the overweening power of the proprietarcy than I do by the power of the politicians. We can at least throw the latter out; Rup et al are here for the long haul. I wonder why Peter did not devote any space to that.

        • patrickinken

          Apart from the fact that Oborne does say what I have attributed to him, we are clearly not “all lost” just because Finkelstein is close to the government. Finkelstein is not the only journalist in the UK.

          • mikewaller

            That is why I said “journalists” not just Finkelstein. Obviously one Finkelstein is neither here not there, other than as an example. Trouble is, allow that example to stand and the risk is it will become the norm.

            But to restate my original point, I think by far the bigger risk is the degree of control a tiny clutch of proprietors have over thousands of journalists. As, I think, an adviser to Henry VII said, “Beware the over-mighty subject”. Luckily for him, Henry did not have to deal with foreigners and off-shore dwellers in similarly influential positions.

          • patrickinken

            I know it is why you said “journalists”. But you didn’t say all journalists and you clearly don’t mean all journalists, so why should Finkelstein take this beating for immorality and disloyalty? He happens to be a very good journalist.

          • Kennybhoy

            He is pro Israel. The author of this article is not. Seemples…

          • mikewaller

            That’s as maybe. Nonetheless the case made stands on it own.

          • mikewaller

            I think my earlier response perfectly clear, as was Oborne’s original piece. But I will have one more try. No matter how nice a guy is, if he is, in effect, an embedded propagandist for a politician he is not fulfilling the function expected by the public of a journalist. Given this, if you feel that you can challenge Oborne’s claims in this regard, it would be of service to us if you did so. If you cannot, I feel that you are rather wasting our time.

          • patrickinken

            Well, I wouldn’t want to waste your time, but I think that you have got the wrong end of the stick.

            The question asked above by CN above was:

            For those complaining that this is “mean spirited” – are you saying the article is untrue, or true but shouldn’t be written because you like Danny Finkelstein?”.

            Unsurprisingly for this sort of question, my answer is neither. My answer is that the article is unpleasant and mean spirited because it condemns Finkelstein as immoral and disloyal because he does not conform to Oborne’s model of a journalist – what you characterise as “the function expected by the public”.

            But why should Finkelstein conform to this model? Is he the only influential journalist who does not? If not, why pick on him? Why assert:

            “But speaking truth to power (the most honorable and worthwhile function of any journalist or newspaper) is not an idea that Daniel Finkelstein readily comprehends.”

            (Speaking truth to power – what a cliché. Let me make a guess: Oborne thinks that this is what he himself does, every day, because, yes, he’s moral and loyal.) So Finkelstein is not just immoral and disloyal – he’s also dishonourable and thick.

            As I said, unpleasant and mean spirited. And Finkelstein writes very well.

          • rtj1211

            The easiest way to speak truth to power is to blog independently. Unpaid.

            Whether they take any notice of you is another matter….

          • rtj1211

            WEll, it’s not so easy to set up a new one and make it solvent.

            Andreas Whittam-Smith had a go in the 1980s, but in the end it wouldn’t pay and now it’s owned by an Oligarch.

            If you want ethical owners, people must value the output enough to want to pay for it and journalists must be shareholders prepared to draw less cash in the early days until turnover justifies getting paid more.

            Any out there brave enough to try again?

  • ADW

    Most of the time the problem with Finkelstein’s articles are that they are wet, middle of the road space fillers, all predicated on the assumption that everyone just needs to be nice. Rather like a coalition government, come to think of it.

    • rtj1211

      Actually, he spends a bit too much time plugging his football software for my liking. At least when he sticks to politics he’s doing his job. Which he does very well, even if I don’t agree with everything he writes.

  • Peter Stroud

    I sincerely hope that Oborne has got his facts right, with this story.

    • comment

      Tory Party conference 2011 I was walking behind DF and another well known Times journo and for some 15 minutes overheard them discuss the Times’ leader on DC’s forthcoming speech. The speech was many hours away and even taking into account the the usual pre-speech leaks, I was amazed at how much DF knew about (i) the detail in the speech and (ii) the precise (and positive) line the Times was going to take. Makes sense now…

      • ajwillshire

        All speeches are released to the press ahead of time but are embargoed prior to delivery. This is precisely to give newspapers time to write their stories and analysis in time for the next day’s papers.

  • blingmun

    Fink does indeed seem to be a nice human being but I suspect his consistent policy of appeasing the left has been disastrous for the Conservative Party. He must bear much responsibility for haemorrhaging membership and electoral extinction in the North of England, Wales and Scotland.

    I am UKIP supporter so if I ever meet him I will shake him by the hand.

  • newspaper reader

    Nothing about Janan Ganesh at the FT then?

    • sarah_13

      It seems to me that the two journalists mentioned are particularly articulate and insightful journalists. The only truth emerging is that George Osbourne is liked by nice journalists.

  • OliverC

    Show Trial of Finkelstein

    Exhibit A: someone (who?, where?) overheard him on a phone in a train saying he was writing Osborne’s speech.
    Exhibit B: he didn’t have a crystal ball telling him the hacking scandal would happen.
    Exhibit C: he thinks we ought to have done something about Assad gassing his own people.
    Well, frankly, A and B I could handle, but C is too much.
    Off with his head!

  • dmitri the impostor

    ‘As with many members of the political class, it is hard to discern where his allegiance lies.’

    The answer is in the question, Mr O. But I’ll let you off. You only wrote the book on the subject.

    • Kennybhoy

      I hope I voted you up for the right reason Maister I! 🙂

  • therealguyfaux

    This all has the faint(?) odour of House Of Cards, except that here, it’s Mattie who’s instructing FU, and can’t possibly comment.

  • Wot? No mention of the Fink Tank? Everything else is mere piffle…

  • Mark Cooper

    Excellent article. A journalist’s loyalties should be to his readers, not those he writes about.

    Why can’t Oborne write like this in the Telegraph? Many of his recent articles seem entirely deranged…

  • Curnonsky

    Why single out Finkelstein when the fact is the journalistic class as a whole not only inhabits the same pond as the political class, journalists have always used their connections with politicians to advance their careers (and line their pockets) while politicians have always used journalists to increase their power and visibility (not mention settling scores). To imagine otherwise is naive in the extreme.

    So why does Oborne single out the Finkster? One thing is certain – it has nothing to do with his last name.

    • Kennybhoy

      Bullseye! See my comment above.

  • Lovely writing and an insightful piece. Of course Danny is a good bloke – he supports Spurs, what’s not to like? But he who pays the piper calls the tune. Trouble is its hard to know who’s the piper and who’s the paymaster. Though Danny’s lordship might be a clue….

  • KDouglas

    I’ve always found it strange that Finkelstein should have been one of the Newsnight political pundits. This article confirms that I was right.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Finkelstein? Now would that be an Irish name?

  • Elliot Grant

    A nasty little article by an apologist for Iranian fascism. I’m disappointed that the Spectator should publish such rubbish

  • rorysutherland

    Actually, I find this rather reassuring. Who would you prefer George Osborne talks to every day? Carole Caplin?

  • Jealous much?

  • sfefssdadsd

    Aside from the obviously too-close relationship between DF and the government, what I can’t understand is how people ever thought him a decent writer. He’s awful – smug, self-obsessed and unconvincing at the best of times.

  • rtj1211

    Look, if you really want to write about what goes on in the heart of Government, you’ve got to develop trust with ministers, because otherwise they won’t feed you exclusives. Couldn’t trust you.

    The at-a-distance interrogator is great at retrospective invective, but in order to influence things before the cock-ups are made (which saves far more money than whingeing afterwards), you need a different approach.

    There’s a risk, of course, but overall it’s a risk worth taking.

    Since if you can’t put your side of the argument in government, all those bastards on the other side of the fence will get all the publicity, even if their rottweilers are more unprincipled than yours.

  • Bill Brinsmead

    Hi Peter,

    Have you been put up for this character assassination, or perhaps assisted in its drafting, by Tim Montgomerie? Since Tim became comment editor at The Times the pieces have been dominated by dreary droning on about Europe and climate change denial from folk like Matthew Elliott, Matt Ridley and John Redwood. I guess the every sensible Danny is a rival and is antagonistic to Tim’s views.

    Or maybe you just want to stick it to a competitor of the Telegraph group.

    Whatever tis dismal fare. Lighten up.

  • NeilM639

    Stopped reading The Times over 20 years ago.

  • Chris

    Peter Oborne – left wing “journalist”. Does no journalism and merely spins a left wing agenda. He even celebrated the “rightfull slapping down” of a UK prime minister by the EU. One member of the hideous journalist clan attacking anouther is a joke.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Now would that be an Irish name?

  • John Smith

    The collusion of journos & politicians has been of great dissatisfaction to the provinces. Them & the Beeb do the non Londoncentric a great disservice

  • Roger Dodd

    One of the most shocking things I’ve read in ages. Even if half true, I find this to be more appalling than the expenses scandal. It explains the unease I’ve had about DF’s pronouncements, which always seemed to be according some hidden (or not so hidden) agenda.

  • There’s an alternate view of Finklestein j.mp/dannyfinkelstein I think it’s more parody than anything but still a contrasting read.