Young Readers: Times executive editor Daniel Finkelstein was hooked by Watergate scandal as a child
Said to be the best connected man in British politics, Daniel Finkelstein first came to prominence as the chairman of the Young SDP, and subsequently became a political advisor to John Major and William Hague. He writes for the Jewish Chronicle, is known for his weekly football column, The Fink Tank, and is the executive editor of The Times.
What first made you interested in politics?
When I was 11, I used to go downstairs to read the paper (The Times, of course) before the rest of the family was up. I wanted to read about football, and the only time I could do that was before my dad got hold of it. I used to spread the paper out on the hall floor and read every article. But in those days, that wasn’t many. Now we have pages, but at that time it was just a few pieces.
So it wasn’t long before I finished the football and the rest of the house was still sleeping. I began turning the paper over and beginning at the front, seeing what else there was. This was 1973, and the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, had become embroiled in an extraordinary scandal. There had been a break-in at the apartment complex occupied by his opponents, and as journalists investigated they traced the money financing the burglars right back to The White House. Nixon was forced to resign. It was thrilling and I was hooked.
But the experience of my parents, one imprisoned in Belsen concentration camp, the other in Siberia, meant I always knew politics mattered.
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What did you learn from the experience of being chair of the Young Social Democrats (YSD), and do you feel that a young person can make a difference in politics?
I gained a huge amount from being chair of YSD, far more than I ever contributed, and I made some friends I still have. My vice-chairman, Andrew Cooper, is the Prime Minister’s director of strategy and we talk most days even now. I am still proud of some stances we took, particularly on gay rights, long before it was conventional. But I have to say the that the single biggest lesson I took from it is that one can often be wrong and very confident about it. It is worth remembering that, whenever one is in a political row.
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You’ve worked with many politicians such as John Major and William Hague; who is the most impressive politician you’ve met and why?
Gosh. I have had the opportunity to meet many incredible people - Henry Kissinger, Yassir Arafat, George W Bush, Margaret Thatcher and many others - and even the least admirable of them made an impression. My great hero is the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky who I met when he was a minister in Israel. He showed extraordinary fortitude and intellectual strength.
What was it like attending cabinet meetings?
Well, both attending cabinet and presenting to it were a privilege, and I would be lying if I denied pinching myself at first. But after a few times you realise that it is, in the end, another committee meeting. I was Secretary to the Shadow Cabinet, going every week, and after a while you would be pleased if it had to be cancelled for some reason! Going to cabinet does make you understand that you can’t govern through cabinet meetings. There are too many people. If each member speaks for two and a half minutes on something, you’ve taken up an hour. And each person makes a different point.
You stood for Parliament in 2007; do you still have any political ambitions?
I don’t intend to run for Parliament again, that’s for certain. My wife would be keen for me to make that clear. I really enjoyed doing it but I decided I didn’t really want to live an MP’s life, even if I did initially want to be an MP. It’s a pretty hard way of making a living. But I still have many political issues I care about deeply and I want to influence politics. If that’s a political ambition, I still have it.
You worked in politics for many years; does it bear any resemblance to political life in The Thick of It?
Yes. In fact, Armando had dinner with me before the first series to pump me for ideas. Of course it is an exaggeration for comic effect, but I think the absurd nature of many political initiatives and the capacity for things to go wrong are brilliantly captured.
Why did you want to go into journalism?
I started in computer journalism while still involved with the SDP. I enjoy writing and analysing and it just felt like the right thing to do, I guess. I really love it. I am a very particular type of journalist, however. I am an opinion writer, an analyst and a polemicist rather than a pure reporter. I am not sure I would be all that good as, say, The Times transport correspondent.
How do you go about writing leading articles for The Times?
Every morning there is a meeting to look at the expected news agenda. I go to that and then convene a meeting of the leader team to discuss what I have learned. Then we meet with the editor to discuss which three topics he wants to express a view on. I then allocate them to different writers. I pick the person who knows most about the subject area and sometimes that is me. Then I sort of sit down and start typing. It might not take long to write, an hour say, but it is based on years of reading.
What is the most memorable story you’ve had to cover?
Well, probably the Iraq War and attending the Hutton Inquiry after one of the nuclear inspectors killed himself. The fact that it was so serious: a matter of life and death to hundreds of thousands of people meant that opinion really mattered.
Given your work on The Fink Tank, do you think you’d make a good football manager?
I am not a great believer in managers, or, to put it better, I think most managers make little difference. I would certainly be one of those! I certainly believe that greater use of stats could aid management so I think I would be a good assistant. But given the scepticism about such things in the game, no one would ever hire me.
How do you feel about being ranked the 17th most influential man in Britain in the recent GQ magazine?
What happened since last year when I was 14th? That is an inevitable human reaction, even though I know the list is completely absurd. I’m not even the 17th most influential man in my own home.
Do you have any advice to give aspiring young journalists and politicians?
Plenty, but I will confine myself to three. First, you should read, read and read. You will learn things and you will learn to express things. Second, try to stay true to yourself, the things you believe and the values you hold. Finally, remember that you could be wrong, be polite to the person you are debating with even when provoked. They could be right, and, anyway, it never persuades anybody if you get cross.
How are you connected to the area?
I went to school in Frognal, so every day I made my way from the station, down towards the church, past Gaitskell’s grave some days, down the sandy path on others. The first meal I had without my parents was at Maxwell’s on the hill on the day I finished my O’levels, and I spent a fair amount of time buying books in the hill bookshop. Then when I got married we lived in East Finchley, leaving us five minutes by car from Kenwood. When our first child was born we would meet after work and walk him on the Heath as often as we could.