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February 23, 2023

Charles Moore interview: ‘Journalism’s a pretty rackety trade, isn’t it?’

Former Daily Telegraph editor Lord Moore speaks about his career, writing and the BBC.

By William Turvill

Has any editor ever embodied the spirit of their newspaper better than Charles (now Lord) Moore, The Daily Telegraph’s former head honcho?

Eton? Tick. Oxbridge? Tick (Cambridge). Margaret Thatcher? Authorised biographer. BBC licence fee? Sceptic. Hereditary peers? Supportive. Favourite magazine? “I used to enjoy Horse and Hound. But that’s become much more interested in things like dressage and not enough in hunting.”

Moore, 66, has been a Telegraph man off and (mainly) on since his early 20s. He graduated from reporter to leader writer within a few years and had the opportunity to learn his trade from journalistic legends including Bill Deedes and T.E. Utley (“an absolute inspiration”).

By his late 20s, Moore was an editor. He led The Spectator between 1984–90, The Sunday Telegraph from 1992–95 and The Daily Telegraph from 1995–2003. Moore is today a columnist for both The Telegraph and The Spectator. He published Thatcher’s biography across three volumes published in 2013, 2016 and 2019.

In 2020, he was appointed to the House of Lords by his journalistic protege, Boris Johnson, himself a former Spectator and Telegraph journalist who rose to become prime minister.

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When I asked Moore, already known as Lord Snooty in Private Eye‘s Street of Shame, how his peerage had come about, he said: “I don’t know.”

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Moore, who accepted the Lords invitation on the condition that he not be affiliated with a political party so that he could maintain a level of journalistic independence, added: “For some reason Boris Johnson wanted me to be made a peer. He never spoke to me about it. I don’t think he’s ever spoken to me about it… Yes. Sorry. He did. After I’d become a peer. Never before. And I never asked to be a peer, even informally, let alone formally.”

I asked Moore, therefore, whether his peerage had come as a shock. “Um, I’d heard a rumour from somebody that it might happen. So it wasn’t a shock.”

He added: “I suppose – and this is 100% supposition – that, first of all, I admired Boris as a journalist. I promoted him. And then when he become a politician, I supported him as leader. And, of course, I supported him on Brexit. Sorry, it’s the other way around, because Brexit was first. And so, I think, he felt pleased about that. But that’s all.”

Later, when I asked Moore about some of Johnson’s other peerages (Lord Lebedev), and rumoured peerages (Lord Dacre), and how they might affect the public’s trust in politics, he said: “Well, it’s certainly always been true – literally always been true – that prime ministers have appointed some peers who they like. It would be pretty odd if they didn’t, wouldn’t it?”

‘I only really understand my argument by writing’

Moore generally writes from home in East Sussex. I arranged to interview him on one of his weekly visits to the capital. We bumped into each other at the entrance to The Spectator’s office in Westminster where we were due to meet. It was a bitterly cold day, and Moore wore an overcoat and gilet over his suit and polka-dot tie.

Inside, Moore found us an empty downstairs conference room, set around a large, wooden table. He disappeared to find us some drinks and re-emerged after a few minutes brandishing a half-drunk bottle of San Pellegrino and two commemorative royal mugs. “All I could find,” he muttered apologetically.

Moore is responsible for three columns a week, two for The Telegraph and one for The Spectator. In between writing, Moore said he tries to meet and telephone as many people as he can to inform his columns. “Although column-writing is a solitary occupation, I do talk to a lot of people,” he said. “I find that gets it going. Some people, I think, really just completely sit alone to write everything without other voices, and that’s amazing if you can do that.”

As soon as he has an idea for a column, he’ll note it down “in about four words in a notebook because it might go out of my head”. He does not “plan very closely” what he will write and does not do drafts. “Some people think very deliberately and carefully and then write,” he said. “I’m not like that. I find the actual composition is the way of thinking – which is helpful for a journalist because it means you can get on faster than if you make a plan and a draft and so on.”

The result of Moore’s strategy is that “I only really understand my argument by writing. So when people ask me what I’m going to say, I find it quite difficult to explain.”

Moore said he does not write his own headlines, but editors at The Telegraph “kindly let me look at them”. He added that they “very rarely come to blows”.

‘Everybody gets caught out by history sometimes’

Having been made a leader writer in his early 20s, Moore is well versed in forming an opinion and sharing it with readers. I asked him if he had always felt sure of himself, even at a young age. “I knew a bit about the formation of opinion because my father had been a leader writer on the News Chronicle in the fifties,” said Moore, adding that his father was a “lifelong liberal whereas I’m more conservative. At home, he said, his family would discuss “public affairs a lot, and history”.

I asked Moore if he looked back on many of his columns with regret. “Obviously there’s an element of bravado writing a column,” he said. “And therefore you often say some things you regret later, either because you’ve unintentionally hurt someone – or indeed if you’ve intentionally hurt someone, that’s worse really, isn’t it?” He said, for instance, that he felt he had been too hard on John Major and Tony Blair in the past.

In 2020, when Moore was tipped to become the next chairman of the BBC, The Guardian highlighted a particularly dated 1992 Spectator article that featured the pull-quote headline: “Would you rather your house burnt down, or that your daughter married a black man?”

Moore was reporting on comments that a lord had made at a gathering of “Tory thinkers” for a “rather high-minded discussion of immigration”. He went on to write that “the remark was notably extraordinary, but his presentation of the alternatives captured the essence of white fear – your house burning, your daughter stolen, destruction and disorder visited upon you.

“Some attempt to elevate this fear into an elaborate genetic or cultural theory; others degrade it into pure hatred; most just regard it as based on a practical fact of which one should quietly take some account, crossing the street to avoid the black youths loitering in one’s path. There must be something in the common observation of racial characteristics. And if it is true, as it surely is, that some races – the Jews are the obvious example – are highly enterprising and talented, it may also be true that some are the opposite.”

When I asked Moore about this article, he said: “Yes, I do remember that, yes. The quotes are what somebody said at a meeting I was at.” When I asked him about his apparent suggestion that certain traits are intrinsic to certain races, he said: “I don’t remember that. But I haven’t read the article for – I just remember the headline because that was a very striking remark. Um, I’m afraid I don’t remember what the article said. No, I can’t even remember what the article was about.” When I gestured to ask Moore if he’d like me to find it on my phone, he said: “No, not really. You’ll just be sort of catechising for half-an-hour. But I mean, this is, I suppose, it must be 30 years or something?”

I asked Moore if, in general, he ever looked back on old articles and thought he wouldn’t have written them differently in the present day? “Well, I don’t look back at them, really,” he said. “But all I would say, in general, is that everybody gets caught out by history sometimes. But would it be a good writer who always said the same thing in the same way every time? I mean, no, it wouldn’t. And also, often you write in an ignorance, which you then become more knowledgeable about later. After all, it’s famously a first draft of history, which obviously implies there’s a second, third, fourth draft.”

The BBC is an ‘imperial institution in a non-imperial age’

I met Moore shortly after allegations started to emerge about Richard Sharp failing to declare a conflict of interest during his application to be chairman of the BBC. Naturally, I had hoped that Moore – who was heavily linked with the job before Sharp only to rule himself out for “family reasons” – would dish some dirt. But he disappointed, saying he knew nothing other than what he had read in the press. “I know Richard slightly from a long time back,” he added. “But I’d never heard of this before and I don’t know.”

Sharp has proven a controversial figure among some of the BBC’s journalists. But I suspect Moore, a long-time licence fee sceptic and one-time licence fee dodger, would have been even less popular in SW1.

“The thing I notice about the BBC is that everybody who works for it is unhappy,” he told me when I asked him about his views on the corporation. For this, he blamed “bureaucracy”, which he believes is “anti-creative”. “You have to have bureaucracies – you particularly have to have them in government – but if you don’t have to have them you shouldn’t,” he said. “And I don’t see why we have to have that sort of corporation. And in fact, I think we probably won’t have it really in anything like that form for very much longer.” He described the BBC as an “imperial institution in a non-imperial age” and said it is “ebbing away”.

Moore admitted he had made a similar claim in The Daily Telegraph around 40 years ago, but said it was “truer now”. Seeking to prove his point, Moore asked me my age. When I told him I was 33, he said: “Yeah, I mean, do you pay a licence fee?” I told him I did. “Gosh. Very unusual. Perhaps you have to in your job. But I know very few people of your age, let alone younger, who buy a television and pay the licence fee. Very, very few. And it’s not all because they’re licence fee dodgers – some of them will be – but because they don’t need to really.”

I asked Moore whether his children, also in their early-30s, pay the licence fee. “I haven’t been so rude as to ask them,” he said.

Anyway, BBC staff can rest easy. Whenever the BBC chairmanship next comes up, Moore won’t be interested. “It seemed to me that when people were suggesting I might try, that obviously was tempting in a way because it would be an interesting thing to do. But I think the way it’s constituted is that you can’t do anything really.”

‘Journalism’s a pretty rackety trade, isn’t it?’

As a man who has been on or near the frontline of British journalism since 1979, Moore is well-placed to observe how Fleet Street has changed over the past 40 years.

Free speech, he said, comes “under much more attack” now than then. “There’s a tremendous attempt to sort of blacken people by trying to catch them out in a particular locution,” he said. “So if you look at the world of culture wars stuff, one thing people are doing is they keep changing the phrases approved.” He said people should endeavour to understand what others are “trying to say rather than absolutely precisely picking them up on every word they use”.

He said there is “a quite serious attempt to shut down free speech on quite a lot of issues” and that this should be “very strongly resisted”. But he added that, in the past, there “probably wasn’t enough… cultural penalty for just being nasty, really.

“I think, on the whole, the growth of women in journalism has helped reduce that. Though there is a certain type of nasty woman columnist, as well, isn’t there, who used to be satirised in Private Eye as Glenda Slagg. But, on the whole, that sort of male bullying way of writing has declined and that’s probably a good thing. In fact, it is a good thing.”

Moore’s other then-and-now observation is that “newspapers are much less brave than they were”. “People are just frightened of everything, really, aren’t they?” he said, speculating that this is because Britain has followed America’s lead and become “too lawyered up”. “They are advisers,” he said of lawyers. “And the decisions must not be delegated to them. And what happens now all too often is that people say, ‘Oooh, the lawyers say we can’t say this!’ Never say that.”

Throughout Moore’s career, he said, the public have unfairly assumed that journalists are loose with facts. I asked why he thought that was. “Well, because everything’s so fast, and because journalism’s a pretty rackety trade, isn’t it? It’s not a sort of high profession. And they’re often annoyed by what’s said in a newspaper. And they often have good reason to be annoyed.

“But,” he added, “the great thing you’re doing in news is you’re conveying as fast and accurately as you can what’s happened. Which is a surprisingly hard thing to do. And it’s not getting any easier.”

Quickfire questions with Charles Moore

Favourite newspaper? “Well, obviously The Telegraph.”

Apart from The Telegraph? Formerly The Guardian (“early-to-mid Rusbridger”), now The Times or Daily Mail, which is “quite fearless”.

Magazine (apart from The Spectator)? “I’m not a massive consumer of magazines. I used to enjoy Horse and Hound. But that’s become much more interested in things like dressage and not enough in hunting.”

TV show? “Nothing current.”

A favourite film? “No. I used to be a tremendous film buff, but I wouldn’t say.”

Bedtime? “10, latest.”

Wake up? “About 5.30.”

Favourite non-fiction book? “Other than the bible and Shakespeare, as they always say, I suppose I would have Boswell’s Life of Johnson because it’s so easy just to read a few pages, and so fascinatingly done. But, really, I don’t like making those choices.”

Career low point? Losing a libel case against George Galloway.

High point? “This isn’t a high point, but I’ll just say this: One day I was editing The Sunday Telegraph on a Saturday, the day when the news comes out, and there was an interesting noise going round the building, the office. A sort of hum. And it was nice like bees, not a sort of annoying hum like a machine. And I said to my secretary: ‘Do you hear that? It’s sort of nice.’ And she said: ‘Yes – everyone’s happy.’

“And I thought, gosh, that’s great. That’s fantastic. Obviously, it can’t last, but there’s a lovely thing about working in a newspaper office when things are going right. Though we’re all very competitive and rude and difficult and sometimes drunk and all the rest of it, it’s because you’re focused on something that you’ve got to do, an esprit de corps, and a sort of excitement and pleasure. I absolutely love that about journalism.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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