'I've snubbed dignitaries': Joe Churcher's diary

Written by Joe Churcher on 17 January 2013 in Opinion
We peek into Press Association's chief political correspondent's diary

This article is from the February 2013 issue of Total Politics

I was asked to write this diary the evening before the world was due to end. Optimistic, I thought – and, sure enough, the next day I awoke to an apocalypse.

Thankfully for humanity, this new Dark Age turned out to be confined to my own head (it wouldn’t take a soothsayer to predict such a result of the PA Westminster Christmas party). Dismally off-beam forecasts reminded me, though, of the event which kicked off a busy December for our 11-strong team that more than justified a little letting down of hair: George Osborne’s autumn statement. The world may not be ending, the chancellor effectively told MPs, but it may increasingly feel like it for the worst-hit victims of austerity for at least another six years. He used rather more words than that, of course, slightly upwards of 6,500 more, in a statement that lasted from 12.35pm until 1.21pm. I am certain of the times because they comprise the first and 57th bite-sized ‘rushes’ sent out to the country’s media, the other 55 summarising the speech contents in real time. Live tweeting? Old hat. We’ve been doing it for years.
While the chancellor booked himself the Scrooge role for several more seasons, the Parliamentary press gallery was visited by a Ghost of Christmas Past in the apparition of Tony Blair. Venturing into the lair of those he once dubbed “feral beasts”, the ex-premier was confronted rather by nostalgic pussy cats, purring at the old charm and proffering books to be signed. As Blair penned his name, my lunch table conversation with one of his former cabinet colleagues turned to the famously scrawled handwriting of his successor in No 10. There were many things not to feel sorry for Gordon Brown about in terms of his rough ride in the press, but as a visually impaired person myself – how nice to be able to write that without having to check with the Paralympic language police – I did wince on a few occasions.
Walking through a door before his guest Barack Obama, failing to open the car door for his wife, ignoring proffered handshakes: all were sometimes portrayed as examples of discourtesy. For me they were glaring consequences of restricted sight. I’ve snubbed the outstretched hands of dignitaries, wandered into countless camera shots and had to explain to two prime ministers that I had only been fighting inanimate objects – a glass door and a Kuwaiti tree. Like Brown, I face the threat of one day losing all my sight: me, gradually to a genetic disease known as retinitis pigmentosa (RP); him, as the result of a teenage rugby accident. I wonder whether reactions to his mishaps are less sympathetic because, I understand, he won’t publicly acknowledge a disability while I embrace mine and am open about my limitations.
Frankly, there were chunks of the 220 minutes or so I spent at Fratton Park over Christmas when I almost wished RP would hurry up and plunge me into total darkness sooner rather than later. Four years after seeing the FA Cup winners grab a two-goal lead over AC Milan from that very stand, defeats to Crawley and Yeovil accelerated our slump towards English football’s basement. It’s the ‘boom and bust’ story to top them all, a short period of riding an exhilarating wave always suspecting that the final destination was right here, shipwrecked. Such is the depth of distrust of football finance now that I hear many doubts even about the proposed “fans’ buyout”. It’s no longer taboo in the post-match pub to wonder if we might be better losing the latest court battle and starting again from scratch... 
A seasoned spin doctor could, I’m sure, find a way to turn the league table upside down and present Pompey’s pitiful points tally as a “good thing”. But be warned: a watchdog is on the prowl and unafraid to take the battle against numerical nonsense to the top. David Cameron again found himself in the crosshairs for undermining voter confidence in official data by using misleading NHS spending figures and appearing to abuse his privileged early access to GDP data. Sadly, the persistent barking by UK Statistics Authority chair Andrew Dilnot makes it all the more unlikely politicians will ever grant the body the bite to go with it.
The best efforts of the media to manipulate weather statistics could not prevent it taking just three days for 2013 to suffer its first major rolling news anticlimax.
Last year was NOT, it turned out, the wettest year for the UK on record, thanks mainly to longer-than-average gaps between the showers north of the border.
I have the ruined boots and blister scars to vouch for it being England’s wettest after completing the 200-mile Coast-to-Coast trek to raise cash for RP research. So perhaps there’s scope for a fresh front in the Scottish independence campaign: vote ‘No’ to keep the UK drier.
Joe Churcher is chief political correspondent for the Press Association

Tags: Diary, February 2013, Issue 55, Joe Churcher, Press Association

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