Richard Heller:

Comment: What do I have to do to get Mandelson to threaten me?

Comment: What do I have to do to get Mandelson to threaten me?

By Richard Heller

The BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, gave me a wistful interlude when he revealed recently that Peter Mandelson had threatened his career

There are two marks of honour in modern British journalism. One is receipt of a Carter-Ruck letter and the other is a menacing exchange with Mandelson. In my years as a full-time journalist I achieved the first but to my deep regret I missed out on the second. I was told that he was very cross when I exposed the Great Surfball Scandal in 1998 (details for younger readers on request) but I never heard him use that famous catchphrase: "I know your editor."

I am currently working on a story about him which, if published, might make butterflies cease to flap their wings in the Amazon, so perhaps I still have a chance. But would it matter any more? Peter Mandelson will never be in power again, certainly not under Ed Miliband's Labour government. I wonder if editors take his calls any more.  Would an editor allow him to interrupt a conversation with say, Mr Christopher Biggins, or Sweetie the tragic panda?

Notwithstanding his eclipse, threats by politicians to journalists' careers are an abuse of power and it is time that they were stopped.

In the current political struggle over media regulation, David Cameron has tried to position himself as a champion of journalistic freedom. He could demonstrate this by a simple measure which requires no legislation or new machinery and which all the other parties would be forced to applaud.

That is to amend the ministerial code of conduct to warn ministers explicitly against making any threat to the career of any individual journalist, or making any attempt to procure his or her dismissal or non-promotion or non-appointment to any position

It should be an equal breach of the code for a minister to offer to advance a journalist's career, or make any attempt to secure this. Ministers could still complain about a journalist as volubly and directly as they choose. They could bellow for a correction. If circumstances warranted, they could go to the courts or the police. But putting a journalist in fear, or in hope, for his or her future would be unacceptable conduct – and bad news for the minister's career, not the journalist's.

This revision of the code should also be applied to special advisers or anyone else acting on a minister's behalf.

Indeed, it would be a good time to make clear that ministers should take personal responsibility for anything done in the course of official business by any of their personal appointees. To use a legal expression, special advisers and other such people should be treated as "emanations" of the minister who chose them.

The minister would be personally accountable – and legally liable – for their behaviour in public office, whether he or she authorised them or not. He or she would not be able to cower behind a wall of ignorance or deniability. If, for example, a special adviser defamed somebody, the victim could sue the minister as well as the minion. If a special adviser crossed the frontier of criminality the minister might become a co-defendant. That would make ministers pickier about their special advisers. It might even ensure that these people live up to their title, and provide advice, rather than indulge  in "frolics of their own".

These instant measures would be a double whammy for media freedom and better government. They would mark out Cameron as a reforming prime minister, and no successor government would dare to flout them or repeal them.

Richard Heller was a contributor to The Mail On Sunday for fifteen years. His latest novel, Your Very Own Ricky Rubato, is available here

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