The fastest track to success: If you can’t make it writing, why not turn yourself into the story?


WHAT was Anna Pasternak up to when she decided to write her extraordinary tale of the Princess of Wales’s alleged affair with Captain James Hewitt? The obvious answer is that she was making a fortune: close friends say the deal amounted to pounds 1m. But there is another answer which is to do with the nature of modern journalism. At 27, Anna Pasternak was anxious to make an impact in her chosen career – to become one of those ‘star’ columnists, perhaps get invited on to a few television shows – and, in the 1990s, getting involved in a story of this sort is rapidly becoming almost the only route to success.
The past five years have seen a transformation in the definition of success in newspapers, especially among young reporters. Until about 40 years ago, journalists were usually anonymous. Only a handful of the most distinguished – Sefton Delmer and James Cameron, both war correspondents, or Godfrey Winn, a royal correspondent of the old ‘God-bless-you- ma’am’ school – enjoyed bylines. Most journalists appeared simply as ‘our own correspondent’ or ‘staff reporter’. The most famous columns – such as Cassandra, and Crossbencher – were written under pseudonyms.

If you were under 30 the way to make your name on Fleet Street was to produce a front-page scoop. Even then fame was limited and transient. Nobody had heard of Colin Mackenzie, the journalist who, 20 years ago, discovered the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs hiding in Brazil; after he had found Biggs, nobody heard of him again.

Now, ‘star’ columnists are often not journalists at all, but people who have become famous in another field and for other reasons: Mariella Frostrup, David Mellor, Gary Lineker, Alan Clark. Newspaper editors increasingly believe that readers would prefer, for example, to read articles about sport by a famous sportsman rather than by A Nobody – even if A Nobody could actually write better. An added attraction is that, though celebrity columnists command high fees, they are probably not as expensive as sending a reporter to the ends of the earth in pursuit of a story.

The answer, for the ambitious young journalist, is to become a celebrity. Miss Pasternak’s peer group has achieved this with remarkable speed and ease. By dint of his eccentricity William Cash, son of the Tory Euro-sceptic MP Bill Cash (which helped), actually changed the events he was covering. He danced with Madonna at the Cannes Film Festival, got slung into jail at Elizabeth Taylor’s 60th birthday party and puked all over the walls of Jay McInerney’s spare bedroom after an interview. All this gained coverage by other newspapers and provided the 27- year-old Cash with enough material for a book.

Imogen Edwards-Jones, 26, acquired notoriety when she flew to Hollywood to have her lips enlarged for an article in London’s Evening Standard. She subsequently wrote endless pieces about her sexual relationships, and the ‘I’m game for anything’ label, unsurprisingly, stuck. She became known among her circle as the Sunday Times’s ‘rave correspondent’ – not something I believe she was particularly proud of, but at least she was known as something.

Toby Young, editor of the Modern Review, now in his early thirties, first earned his space in the gossip columns when his founding editorial team crept into the offices of a national newspaper at night to use their printing facilities. He continues to pop up: a ferocious argument with the actress Elizabeth Hurley, plastered all over the tabloids, did nothing to stop his fame spreading. Sometimes, in an incestuous merry-go- round, the journalists who have become celebrities have their fame spread by the celebrities who have become journalists. Ginny Dougary made the headlines (relatively late in life) when she wrote a piece containing some disparaging remarks by Norman Lamont about John Major. David Mellor, in his Guardian column, described her as ‘an antipodean secretary and mother of two who has gone down in the world as well as across it’. Was she upset? Not likely. ‘This is brilliant,’ said Dougary at the time – and promptly encompassed the former National Heritage minister’s wrath in her next book, The Executive Tart and Other Myths.

How far can this go? A former executive of a national broadsheet suggested at lunch recently that he had been considering employing Elizabeth Hurley as a lifestyle columnist. No disrespect to Ms Hurley, but I choked on my rocket. He failed to understand why.

Even Anna Pasternak must quail at the thought of competing with the likes of Elizabeth Hurley. After all, at 27 Miss Pasternak is a granny compared with 23-year-old Victoria Coren, daughter of Alan Coren, former editor of Punch (which again has not exactly been a hindrance).

For the moment, however, since the publication of Princess in Love, Miss Pasternak is one of the most talked-about journalists in London. She is a living example of what ought to be every young writer’s motto: if you can’t make it writing a story, then it’s worth having a go at becoming the story yourself. It’s a modest start but,

at 25, I think it’s time I had a photo-byline.

(Photograph omitted)