Matthew Parris: ‘We need to stick to our guns’

MP. Journalist. Amateur fertility expert? Matthew Parris looks back on a varied career.

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Matthew Parris was once offered a job with MI6, he tells us. It was probably a good idea he turned it down; he clearly enjoys talking far too much for him to have made a good spy.

Even if he hasn’t been dodging bullets with the Secret Service, Parris has had a fairly colourful life nonetheless. He rather self-deprecatingly says that ‘I have failed at five different careers before succeeding as a journalist.’ The latter part of his statement, at least, is hardly in doubt – he can regularly be found within the pages of the Times and the Spectator, to name but a few – and he’s here at Clare Politics to dispense some words of wisdom for anyone thinking of following him into journalism as a profession.

Parris was speaking at his alma mater, Clare College

In general, he’s not optimistic about the future of print media. ‘The whole field is in chaos’, he argues – the product of a perfect storm of mismanagement and the dominance of the internet. From the Daily Telegraph – ‘being asset-stripped by the Barclay brothers’ – to his very own paper, the Times, Parris is unconvinced that any of the present stalwarts of Fleet Street will be around for very much longer.

Not the most heartening stuff. But paradoxically, he says that ‘there has never been a more interesting time to be a journalist.’ In the age of Trump and his ‘alternative facts’, he sees print media as the natural home of ‘the quiet centre’, and suggests that it would be good to see ‘small papers, local papers…gaining the courage to speak out’ in the age of Trump. Indeed, he identifies ‘the present alarum about fake news’ as being one potential saviour of traditional media – ‘it may actually lead to a revival of confidence in known brands with journalistic standards.’

Of course journalism was not Parris’ first career. He spent seven years as the Member of Parliament for West Derbyshire, a job which he clearly has mixed feelings over. He observes that ‘it is the greatest thing to be a constituency MP’, and relates a variety of charming anecdotes to us about his time as a backbencher, including one occasion where he was called upon to give advice to a young couple trying to conceive. But he can’t have enjoyed it that much – he left Parliament in 1986 to pursue a career presenting ITV’s ‘Weekend World’, saying that ‘I was going nowhere.’ This too was singularly unsuccessful; if you haven’t heard of the show, it’s probably because Parris himself says that he ‘failed spectacularly’ at hosting the show, and eventually ‘led the programme to an early grave.’

Parris’ old haunt – the Palace of Westminster

His current job, as a columnist and general raconteur, in some ways provides him a better position from which to involve himself in politics. He notes that ‘journalists know what’s going on much better than the backbenchers, as they’re invited to dine with the cabinet ministers’, and Parris seems the sort of person who would get invited to many such dinners. He still retains a keen interest in politics, and is one of the few remaining ‘liberal Tories’ in the public sphere – he says that ‘he’d have much more to say to Nick Clegg than to Bernard Jenkin or one of the other “headbangers” on the right.’

When I ask him about the impending Stoke-on-Trent by-election, he points out that the election itself is of little import; ‘Stoke always has one of the lowest turnouts in the UK…trying to construe any kind of message from what 23% of the electorate have done is, I think, a mug’s game.’ But he’s fairly convinced that, regardless of the result, ‘UKIP is going to die.’ From its’ ashes, he argues that ‘Nigel Farage and Arron Banks – his sugar daddy – will cook something up.’ He thinks that the populist right will start to manifest itself as a movement rather than as a party, infiltrating both the Conservatives and Labour. On the other side, Parris takes a sunny view of the Lib Dem’s chances – ‘I wouldn’t rule them out doing surprisingly well…Remainers are feeling energised at the moment.’

Matthew Parris meets the Tab

But it’s when he’s talking about himself that Parris is at his most charming and eloquent. His candour in talking about his career is particularly refreshing – he rather touchingly points out that in politics ‘nobody tells you that you’ve failed’, and freely admits that he was ‘a rather lonely individual’ during his time in the Commons.’ Regardless of his self-effacement, Parris is clearly an exceptionally bright man with a continued passion for both politics and journalism. Perhaps the most important thing he says all night is how the media – and indeed all of us – ‘need to stick to our guns’ in the present age, if we are to survive the post-truth age of politics that we’re often told we’re in.

Even if his industry seems doomed, Matthew Parris has little to worry about; if the event is anything to go by, there’s no shortage of people willing to listen to what he has to say.