Oxford is full of over-achievers. Everyone knows one, the person who will not rest until they’ve ascended the top societies; the suit who walks around town with the air of the Cabinet Minister they will one day become.
Michael Crick, previously Political Editor of Newsnight, and now Channel 4’s Chief Political Correspondent, was of this sort. He was an absolutely massive hack, editing Cherwell, chairing the Democratic Labour Club and becoming President of the Oxford Union – to which he returned last Thursday to participate in the Media and Politics debate. He’s a little embarrassed about it now – “It was awful. It was office accumulation for the sake of it” – but not at all remorseful. And why should he be? For it helped launch a glittering career in political journalism.
After Oxford Crick joined ITN, helping to launch Channel 4’s news team in 1982, and then working as its Washington correspondent, winning an RTS award in 1988 for his coverage of the Bush-Dukasis Presidential Election. From there he swapped to the BBC, first with its flagship investigative programme Panorama and then with Newsnight, becoming its political editor in 2007. But last year he hopped back to 4; he is now the Chief Political Correspondent of the network he joined as a lowly trainee three decades ago. He is famous for the political ambush, the prickly question and the chase. His greatest hits are when he does all three. When Iain Duncan Smith faced a leadership crisis, he delivered a speech at Party Conference famous for the line “The quiet man is here to stay”. Ironically he refused to take questions after the speech. Crick followed him to the next event, from which, as Duncan Smith left, he yelled: “Aren’t you taking this quiet man thing a bit far?” It is in no small part thanks to Crick that we have political satire like The Thick of It.
The job of political correspondents is to follow the day-to-day dramas that typify public life, and to analyse the characters of their subjects. Extraordinarily however, given the enormous pressure they exercise on the political class, what is often overlooked is the character of the journalists themselves.
Crick exudes the same characteristics in person that he gives out on screen. He is sharp, boisterous and funny. Opening his speech at the Union, he pivoted around the despatch box to address the President, John Lee, to deliver a phoney tribute that concluded with a description of the relationship between the Union President and Standing Committee as akin to that between a “villain and his sheep”. He is totally absent of any deference to the Establishment, for the simple reason that he had already outgrown it by the age of 22. But he’s very different from Jeremy Paxman, to whom this description could also be attributed, because he doesn’t take himself all that seriously. He is entirely prepared to accost politicians in the street, or chase them down corridors at party conferences, to demand an answer to the question of when exactly they stopped beating their wives.
The reason Crick totally lacks humility with politicians is because he knows the game so intimately from his Union days. Alan Duncan, the International Development Minister, was a contemporary – beating him to the Union Presidency on Crick’s first attempt. He learnt from that, and won next time around. “The best elections” he tells me, “were when you frightened off the opposition so there wasn’t any, and there were a few of those.” This sound very much to be the school of Robert Mugabe electioneering, but then again it is the Union. During his campaign Cherwell “gave me a two page spread [fully one third of the entire paper in those days] – it was basically a manifesto for my candidacy.” Given the opprobrium regularly poured by the student press on the Union nowadays, I find this hilarious. But just as the country at large treated politicians with greater reverence in those days, so the Union was seen then as more of a serious focal point of student life.
And Crick has had no small role in smashing that wholly undeserved reverence. He clearly loves the job, applying the same skills he acquired as a student hack to making politicians squeal in front of camera. What makes a good hack, I ask? “It’s about getting people to do things when you don’t actually have much power, just the power of ambition” is the straightforward reply. The same applies to journalism. After the Leveson Inquiry the media industry is currently on its knees, but the importance of holding power to account has never been more important.
Predictably perhaps, Crick’s familiarity with politicians has made him totally immune to their charms and suspicious of ideology. He left university firmly in the Labour camp, though “to the right of 1980s Labour”, a natural stance for a grammar school and Oxbridge lad of that generation to take. This soon changed. “You have an opinion-ectomy when you go into broadcast journalism” he says very matter-of-factly, though print journalism is of course an entirely different kettle of fish. At Oxford he had “always intended journalism to be the means into politics”, but when the opportunity to stand in a by-election in a safe Labour seat presented itself, he turned it down and has “felt liberated” ever since.
More than that though: thirty years of close association with Westminster life has hollowed out the politics in him. As a leading political observer he is constantly asking ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘when’, but in doing so he has unlearnt and rejected the ‘ought’. It’s dispiriting to hear him say, both because of what it tells you about the cynicism of Parliament by those closest to it and the implications of that: that we’re going to continue to see dull humanoids occupy Parliament. So apathetic is Crick that he “[doesn’t] vote at all, partly because of the job I do but partly I don’t know what I think any more. The only view I have now is that I’d bring back capital punishment, but only for people who drop chewing gum on pavements.”
What words of wisdom does he have for those who want to follow him into media career? “Build alliances” is his answer, “stay in touch with people you meet at Oxford.” The implication I take from this is that journalism is nepotistic – if you look at how many journalists had parents or close family in the profession then you’ll understand how true this remains. Crick however claims never to have obtained a job through contacts, but as the industry contracts and graduate schemes become scarce, they will be increasingly important. “Being a journalist employs a narrow range of skills” is his last piece of advice, so it’s vital “to master those skills” and develop a specialism in the area you want to cover.
That powerful people go to great lengths to avoid Crick is a testament not only to how well he does the job, but to how much a spirited and informed democracy relies on quality, investigative journalism. As Newsnight, Crick’s old haunt, has been thrown into crisis in recent weeks, that point should be made with all the more force. Whilst I can imagine despising the nakedly ambitious Crick as a student, the grown-up version is almost impossible not to warm to. In that sense the message for today’s generation of hacks is far from bleak.