Interviews – Media – Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott is political editor of The Sunday Times where he has been a journalist for more than ten years. Educated at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, he then went on to do a degree in journalism at the Center for Journalism Studies, Cardiff University. He lives in Islington, with his wife Rachel Storm – also a journalist – and three young children.

Prescott on starting out

After you left Cardiff, where and when did you get your big break?
I had several big breaks. One came when I was at the Coventry Evening Telegraph, and I wanted to break into London journalism. There was no clear precedent or pathway for people moving from local papers to the Press Association that I knew of. I just had the idea of writing to the Press Association news agency, and they gave me a job, allowing me to make my way to London onto a staff job. That was late in ’86.

What happened next?
Although I was only a general reporter, I got sent to follow [Margaret] Thatcher around one evening and she addressed some meeting and made a joke about the timing of the election. She was launching some constituency newsletter. It was to be published every three months, and she joked, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a General Election before we’ve had three of these out!’. So she was basically saying that she would have an election before nine months was up.

Clearly it’s pretty rare to get Prime Ministers commenting on when they’re going to hold a General Election. I wrote that story late in ’86, and then very early in ’87 the vacancy to be the political correspondent at the Press Association arose. Partly because of that story, I was given the job.

How did you join the Sunday Times?
From PA I went to the Sunday Correspondent where I rose to become the chief political correspondent. Sadly the Correspondent was shut down a little over a year later in November ’95 – but it had nothing to do with me! There was a brief period where I just worked as a freelance journalist, and then I got a job at the BBC as home affairs correspondent.

The Sunday Times headhunted me from the BBC and gave me a job as a political reporter. After a while the political editor left. The paper had to decide who to appoint as political editor and whether it should be me or not – I was placed on six months probation, doing the job as it were on an acting basis.

So you were pretty much under the spotlight?
Yes. They were giving me the opportunity to show what I could do.

Prescott on getting into the media

What would your advice be to anyone attempting to get into the newspaper industry, because it’s not exactly an easy job getting in is it?
There are a number of things. First of all, go to university and be a graduate because in this day and age, certainly at a national level, it’s almost a graduate-only profession, so its advisable to go to the best university you can get yourself into. The second thing that I would say is just write and get some articles published. Certainly get stuff in the university paper, but also try and get something in the local paper.

You’ve just got to elbow your way in to get on the first rung of the ladder, whether that’s a job on a local paper or making tea at the local radio station – whatever the hell you can get your hands on! The main secrets once you’re in the door are perseverance and talking to people.

Prescott on success

What are the reasons for your success?
You have to chat to anybody and everybody, because you never know where your next opportunity is going to come from. When I was at the Press Association the political editor, Chris [Moncrieff], used to be in the newsroom sometimes and I would chat to him about what was going on. When the moment came he decided – because he knew me – that he would want to work with me.

Similarly when I was at PA the Sunday Correspondent newspaper was being set up – this became my first national newspaper. Because I had always tended to chat to Donald Macintyre – who became the paper’s political editor – I was taken on.

Prescott on British politics

What are your general views about British politics at the moment, in terms of the fact that the political parties are so closely aligned now? Do you think things have stagnated or that there is now a lack of characters?
No. Ever since I’ve been involved in politics, since I started as a correspondent from 1987 onwards, after every single General Election, people always find an excuse for proclaiming that politics will be boring, or that this will be a dull parliament.

It’s all rubbish because politics is always – but always – interesting, because there are always important decisions to be made. Whenever those decisions are made there will be rows or arguments, and faction fighting. It doesn’t matter whether those arguments are within one party or between two.

Government is always about hard decisions and those hard decisions always give good copy. Similarly, politics attracts dynamic people with big egos, and they are always falling out with each other, or trying to put each other down.

Do you think politics is continuing to attract the most dynamic people?
It’s almost a nonsense question with a nonsense answer. I mean some people say, once upon a time the best people would have gone into politics, but now it’s too full-time a job, and the money isn’t good enough, and that the best graduates are being put off joining politics – it’s all rubbish. The people who really want to be famous, who want to try and make a difference, will always be drawn into politics in the end.

Prescott on News International

How have you found things at the Times?
You mean the Sunday Times. We’re very fussy about the distinction you see, because the Times is the loss making division of News International, and they basically spend all our profits. So we feel pretty superior to the Times, as it’s only us that is keeping them afloat.

Is Rupert Murdoch taking any resources away from News International do you think and putting them elsewhere – into new projects?
Certainly my own paper has prospered under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership. Apparently when he took over, one of the first things he did was to ask about the Moscow bureau, and he was told that the Sunday Times no longer had a Moscow bureau because they couldn’t afford it. To which his response was that the Sunday Times was supposed to be one of the world’s great newspapers and so they better bloody well reopen the Moscow bureau.
Have you had any personal experience of Rupert Murdoch?
Yes, I’ve met him twice.

Did you like him?
Oh, he’s a tremendously impressive person, far more impressive than most politicians one comes across.

For what reasons?
Most people have an image of him being a very bombastic person, whereas in fact he has the great virtue of being someone who actually listens to people, listens to them telling him the facts about what might be going on – that’s one of his great strengths. Obviously it’s hard for me to be objective about him as he’s my employer. But unlike most people in this country who seem to have an automatic temptation to want to knock him, I think the things that he’s achieved are amazing. To build up a multi-billion pound empire on the back of one local newspaper in Australia is an incredible achievement.

Do you think that he’ll continue to be as successful?
He’s Rupert Murdoch – yes, of course!

Prescott on the future

Finally, Michael, where do you go from here?
I hate being asked that question. I’m actually very happy being the political editor of a national newspaper. My hero was Gordon Greig, who now sadly has passed away, but he was the political correspondent of the Daily Mail for decades and decades, and ended up being their political editor. I’ve reached his position.

I find it a curious phenomenon of modern professional life that everyone is always supposed to be passing through a job on a route to something else. I’ve always wanted to work as a political correspondent and I’ve now had the job for more than ten years, on the basis that this is the job which I love doing. I’m not in any hurry whatsoever to move.

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