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James Landale’s political close shave

Do a quick internet search of James Landale and most of the results will be about his former facial hair. For a political journalist with a couple of decades’ experience in the industry, you’d think he might be disappointed that it’s his dear departed moustache and not his hard-hitting scoops that are attracting the most attention. But Landale is proud of the fact: having reached the £7,000 mark in his Movember fundraising campaign, it’s clear the experience has humbled him, even if it comes with the dubious cachet of making headlines in the Metro.

“I’ve learnt two things as part of this Movember campaign,” he tells me. “One thing I’ve learnt is just how generous people can be in a time of austerity. I think it’s a real lesson for charities, that actually, even though money is tight for many, many people, there’s still a sense of a need to give. That surprised me quite a lot.

“The second thing I learnt is just how much women hate facial hair. They really, really do not like it. Women who were very polite about the campaign while I had the moustache were less diplomatic once I’d got rid of it and let their true feelings be known.”

There’s no doubt that his upper lip was attracting attention: one Twitter user described Landale’s appearance as “an extra from Blackadder goes over the top”. But despite creating such a buzz recently, it’s evident Landale’s real interest is in finding the stories, not making them. Unlike his colleague, BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson, who was notorious in his Oxford days for his political hackery, leading to a position as President of OUCA, Landale has never fostered political aspirations.

Instead, while studying Politics at Bristol, he set up what continues to be the university’s premier student paper, Epigram. He freely admits that while he enjoyed the theory side of his degree, the “nuts and bolts” side of politics held little appeal.

“I loved the Hobbes, the Locke, that’s what fascinated me, rather than you know the nitty gritty comparative politics between how the British system compares to the American system. So at no point when I was studying politics was I thinking one day I want to become a Member of Parliament. It was the theory that sparked my interest.”

I ask whether he thinks that his student journo background prepared him better for being a political journalist than hands-on political experience. He pauses, compliments me on the question, clearly trying to formulate an impartial response.

“I think journalists who have had some kind of political background have the advantage of knowing what it’s like to be political, to think politically, how a party operates. They understand the limitations of politics. They feel it a little bit more in their blood. But equally, those who have started early in journalism by working in student journalism have an earlier understanding of the way the media operates, how to operate. So both are good experience.

“But, to answer the question, how to become a political journalist, the answer should be become a journalist, not become an expert in politics. Because journalism is about finding stories, telling stories, discovering what’s going on, making mischief. And politics just happens to be the subject that I’m interested in and obviously many other people are as well. But not all people who are interested in politics are necessarily good at journalism.”

Landale has not always been a broadcast journalist. Before joining the BBC in 2003 as Chief Political Correspondent for the News24 channel, he spent ten years with The Times, culminating in a stint as Assistant Foreign Editor. I wonder whether his move to television was a tactical one, shifting away from the newspaper market before it suffered abject decline, and before News International became synonymous with phone-hacking and other misdemeanours.

“I’m afraid I can’t claim any prescience about the state of the newspaper market,” he confesses. “I had been at the Times for ten years, I’d had a great time there and it’s a fantastic newspaper. But an opportunity came up and I felt that after ten years it was a good opportunity to do something new and different, to operate and do journalism in a different medium. But I can’t claim that I thought ‘ah newspapers are declining therefore I must move somewhere else’.”

When pressed on the future of the industry, in light of recent scandals and the Leveson Inquiry, Landale is circumspect.

“We simply don’t know what conclusions the Leveson inquiry will reach, it’s got a long way to go. I think, though, that the whole hacking affair has had an impact already in terms of greater caution, in terms of a change in attitudes. The interesting question is how long that lasts, because I think that the crucial driver will not just be new regulatory structures established, but how are attitudes changing in the media as a whole. In the same way with the expenses crisis, the response from Westminster was not just the new regulatory system set up for MPs but also the attitude towards money and expenses within Westminster.”

It’s a curious system at Westminster, with the MPs rubbing shoulders with journalists on an informal level, but all the while the former are acutely aware of their public image and the latter that the next day they may write something utterly derisive on the person they just had lunch with. It seems a constant effort to maintain a sense of balance.

“There are lots of MPs and politicians who I know and I’ve known for a long time; I’ve worked at Westminster for a long time,” Landale explains. “And I’ve had lunch with them, and know them quite well. But still, when they’re standing up at a press conference saying something and I’m standing up at a press conference asking them something, then that’s a professional context and you’re asking hopefully professional questions in a professional way.

“I think the relationship between political journalists and politicians is exactly the same as any relationship between any journalist and the people they’re writing or broadcasting about. You have to get to know them, so that you can report what they’re thinking and saying accurately for the audience, because that’s our job, to tell the audience what’s going on, what are people thinking about, why they are thinking about it, what they are deciding. But equally you have to maintain an element of distance and separation so that you can report without fear or favour. And there’s constantly a line, and you have to make sure you maintain it.”

Nonetheless, it seems even when you scrupulously maintain such relationships, the best stories can come seemingly from nowhere. I ask him what he considers to be the biggest scoop of his career, and his response is something of a surprise. He tells me about an occasion when he discovered that a distinguished New Zealand born poet, Fleur Adcock, had written a sonnet about her sexual fantasies about John Prescott.

“The first line from memory was ‘Last night I dreamt I was kissing John Prescott’. And I wrote this story and I rang up the poet and she was in New Zealand. And she told me how she liked John Prescott because she considered him to be gritty and genuine and Northern compared to Tony Blair who she considered to be soft and Southern.”

His article made the front page of The Times. It was the mid-nineties, before New Labour had seen the heady days of power, and the story ran and ran. Michael Heseltine read the poem aloud in the House of Commons. Another Labour MP appeared from the woodwork claiming to have had a “long passionate, unforgettable embrace” with Adcock decades earlier. Responses flooded into the letters page.

But although there are the highs, scoops like that don’t land on your desk as often as journalists might like. Landale admits that “every day” he sees a story he wishes he’d been the one to break. “The whole point of being a journalist is that you want to be first, you want to get stories first, and if you don’t have that hunger then you probably shouldn’t be in the business.”

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