In an age of pompous columnists, self-serving spin merchants and dull-as-ditchwater churnalists, exposure to the full force of Chris Moncrieff, 79-year-old former Political Editor of the Press Association, is a breath of fresh air. The mile-a-minute speaker recently shared with City University Students his thoughts on refusing to retire, “media tart” MPs and the wrath of Dr. Ian Paisley.
Long before blogs were considered an acceptable way to spend your time, there used to be something called political reporting. Chris Moncrieff belongs to that generation of ‘proper’ political journalists who earned their stripes in the then-vibrant local press and who found themselves in the grandiose surroundings of Westminster almost by accident. Back then, there was no Johann Hari-style airdropping into a plush North London office, no fully paid year serving time with the NUS and, I hasten to add, no swanky Masters course paid for by Daddy.
Moncrieff, whose parents “started to panic” when he got to the age of 15 “and still wanted to be a reporter”, was a furious letter writer. After much pleading, he eventually landed a job on the Harrogate Herald in 1949, cutting his teeth reporting darts scores, local gossip and frequenting the pubs under that age-old journalistic auspice of ‘research’.
…instead suggested a role as a political reporter, much to the young man’s horror.
After a spell of National Service (“This always causes a laugh but it’s not meant to: I was in the intelligence corps”), Moncrieff did his time on the Coventry Evening Telegraph and this writer’s own local rag the Nottingham Evening Post, before applying for a job as a general reporter with what he calls “Britain’s national news agency”, the Press Association (PA) in 1961. The PA couldn’t offer Moncrieff the job he wanted, but instead suggested a role as a political reporter, much to the young man’s horror.
“I thought, ‘God, that’s not me at all’. When I read the newspapers, which I did avidly, I skipped over, I regret to say, the political stories. I found them rather tedious. But I was in no position to turn down an offer of getting into Fleet Street so I took it up, terrified. When I got there it was even more daunting than I’d feared!”
Arriving at Westminster
Moncrieff arrived in Westminster, a place “run by nods and winks”, during the age of Harold Macmillan and Hugh Gaitskell, a fiercely ideological politics that would prove a tough training ground for the reluctant political reporter. Soon, however, he was “bitten by the bug”, and by 1980 Moncrieff would rise to become the Political Editor of the PA, a hugely distinguished position which afforded him more bylines than any other journalist in the country.
Outlasting eight Prime Ministers in his time as a hack, Moncrieff was once described by one of them, a certain Tony Blair, as “one of the most remarkable people I have met in any walk of life” and praised by Margaret Thatcher’s cantankerous press secretary Bernard Ingham as “the nearest approach to the 24 hour journalist I have ever known, a straight reporter who writes without any spin”.
In fact, Moncrieff’s relentless pursuit of a story meant even his erstwhile employers had a hard time keeping a good man down. “They had this retirement party on the terrace of the House of Commons, a very splendid thrash it was too. The then-editor of the PA said ‘You’ll be coming back in the morning, won’t you?’” he recounts. “Well, I did and I’ve been doing that pretty well ever since.”
…his decades in the palace have not left him with a great deal of respect…
In spite of the praise heaped on him by fellow journalists and esteemed politicians alike, the Westminster veteran confesses that his decades in the palace have not left him with a great deal of respect for the Right Honourable Members.
“A lot of MPs are what we call media tarts. They see a television camera and it’s like a magnet to them. Politicians are a strange race,” he admits. “I have to say that as each day passes I grow that much more cynical about them. I mean, I used to look up them as sort of gods, but no longer. MPs used to call us the fat cats of Fleet Street. Well, they don’t any more, you might gather, because of their present record. Some of their behaviour is unbelievable.”
He is a fierce critic of the jobs-for-life culture of present-day MPs and he argues passionately that any moves to prevent MPs from taking on work outside of Parliament, in the wake of the expenses scandal, will simply lead to them being cut off from the real world.
A Vocational Career
“When I arrived in 1962, MPs were sleeping in committee corridors and on the benches”, he recalls. “Some of them didn’t even have offices to sleep in because they couldn’t afford a cheap bed & breakfast. They had to buy their own stamps to write letters to constituents. They got nothing. It sounds a bit pompous and sanctimonious, but then it was a vocation, now it’s a job. Now, they moan and groan worse than the most rabid trade union agitator.”
That said, it’s clear that Moncrieff has a huge amount respect for those parliamentarians who demonstrate a certain independence of spirit. He cites Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Powell as “probably the most impressive politicians” of his time at Westminster and argues that the often-overlooked former Labour leader Michael Foot’s speeches were “a joy to hear”.
Of course, one might expect a wizened hack like Moncrieff to be set in the ways of the oft-derided ‘dead-tree press’, oblivious to the innovations in broadcasting and social media that have utterly altered the media landscape in the past decade. Not so. In fact, this archetypal always-on journalist is remarkably forward thinking in his outlook towards new technology.
…I’m all for the Internet. You can get what you want just like that now.
“The more outlets there are for news, I just think it’s a good thing,” he said. “The PA has always run a twenty four hour service, for instance. And I’m all for the Internet. You can get what you want just like that now. Politicians only complain about twenty four hour news because it means they’re constantly at it.”
Above all, Moncrieff seems to have thoroughly enjoyed his years as a political journalist and his discussions are laced with the rich anecdotes of a life well lived. Whether it’s jumping into an MP’s moving taxi just to get the scoop (“I didn’t offer him anything for the fare”), prompting a debate in Parliament about luminous cows (don’t ask) or losing an interview with Dr. Ian Paisley because of Guinness on the breath, Moncrieff’s obvious passion for the story and dedication to his craft are simply awe-inspiring.
This man is a rare breed: a journalist lacking all pretension, a born reporter who eschews the glory of opinion and one who is keen to remind us that, “if we don’t find journalism fun, we might as well not bother”. Amen to that.