News values

As I read through Peter Oborne’s extraordinary article last night, on his resignation from the Daily Telegraph, one sentence lept out at me:

‘I added that our readers were loyal, that the paper was still very profitable and that the owners had no right to destroy it
 [my emphasis]
This, I think, is the most important and interesting idea in the piece.

I am sure that Oborne would agree that anyone who bought a physical copy of a newspaper would have the right to do whatever they wanted with it. This would include the right to destroy it. But implicit in Oborne’s article is the idea that institutions are different to objects. Owning the organisation known as the Daily Telegraph is different to owning a copy of the Daily Telegraph. It comes with a different set of responsibilities and constraints.

A phrase used by Oborne in his subsequent Channel 4 interview helps explain this distinction. He described The Telegraph as ‘a tremendous inheritance’. This expresses the idea that the owners of an institution have a duty to those who acted as stewards for it in the past, and to those who will do so in the future. The essential values of the institution should be preserved. This is a Burkean idea, based on the notion of society as a contract between the generations. It is one that Jesse Norman explored eloquently in his lecture to Demos in 2013 on ‘the morality of markets’.

Oborne’s article contains another important assertion:

‘There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain…Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth.’

This view of journalism as a profession mirrors Oborne’s view of the Telegraph as an institution. Just as the Telegraph has a purpose independent of its owners, journalism has a purpose independent of the logic of supply and demand. On this analysis, it is a vocation with a particular set of traditions, standards and ethics which must be upheld, not just a job that people do in a marketplace.

I mention all this because it represents some of the bigger ideas at stake in the (flourishing) debate over contemporary conservatism. Two projects have launched recently which reflect this. On one hand there is CapX, an initiative owned by the Centre for Policy Studies, whichseeks to promote popular capitalism and defend free markets. On the other, there is The Good Right, which was launched this week, by Tim Montgomerie and Stephan Shakespeare.

Introducing The Good Right, the Montgomerie and Shakespeare write that ‘Since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, conservatism has become a creed indistinguishable from capitalism in many voters’ minds’. The Good Right seeks to challenge this, (re)asserting that conservatism is about more than markets.

I don’t want to suggest that these two initiatives, or sets of ideas, are mutually exclusive because they are not – but I do think they are in tension. The CapX worldview emphasises property rights. I guess that many of its authors might admire Peter Oborne for his resignation, but would tend towards the view that the owners of an institution can do precisely what they want with it, within the rule of law. This doesn’t mean that all choices are equally good, or even smart, but it does mean that it they are the prerogative of the owners.

By contrast, The Good Right might think twice about this. If an institution really is ‘an inheritance’ and the owners really ‘do not have the right to destroy it’ then it follows that their power must be constrained in some way. This might be done through the law, or come from within the institution itself, perhaps with a stronger voice for those representing the particular vocation involved.

It takes a certain level of abstraction to even spot these cleavages, let alone work through their implications in the real word. And all political traditions have ideas that persist in creative tension with one another. But Peter Oborne’s article is not just a story about one newspaper. It raises a series of important questions about markets, institutions and where British conservatism goes next.