Last updated: May 26, 2012 12:10 am

The Diary: Sarah Sands

An interview about London, women in male roles, the Chelsea Flower Show and the Google Zeitgeist conference
An illustration by A. Fisher©A. Fisher

Our former man in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, is making a television series for Sky Atlantic on world cities, and London will be the finale. Have you noticed Sky’s high-end positioning, culturally, so that their tanks are on the BBC’s lawn, even as Murdoch looks weakened by Leveson?

Anyway, I meet Chris to be interviewed in the slightly artificial environment of the Paramount bar in the Centre Point building off Tottenham Court Road – as if Londoners naturally head for the top floors of buildings to splash the cash, when in fact swanky views are more likely to be the territory of tourists, provincials and – let’s face it – hookers.

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The additional televisual artifice is in having to explain to such an urbane insider as Meyer how this city works. Off camera, we discuss Cameron’s woes, the parallels between the Leveson inquiry and the Nolan inquiry into standards in public life in the mid-1990s (both took on a life of their own and came to haunt the prime ministers who called for them), the Meyers’ Knightsbridge builders, the prosperity and success of the London Evening Standard and the royals on a roll.

For the recording, we talk about – ahem – the prosperity and success of the Standard, and how to break into London’s network of power. Can you, as Julie Christie put it all those years ago in Billy Liar, just buy a ticket and get on the train? This is a light-hearted exchange, so I suggest gate-crashing art parties or turning up at Canary Wharf speaking French or becoming an activist/blogger and getting a column in the Guardian. Best of all, fly in from Qatar.

Afterwards, I ponder the question more seriously as I watch the setting sun reflected in the Gherkin. London is a city of fortunes and a haven, but it is not an easy place to live without money or connections. If the structural ladders are not there, we must try to create human ones. Everyone who has cracked London should be mentoring someone who hasn’t. We need to find an organised way of doing this across the capital.

. . .

The Evening Standard has been described as a “femocracy” because it has more women in senior positions than any other major UK newspaper. It used to be said that some newspaper roles did not suit women – news, production, City and sport come to mind – but it is demonstrably true that this is not the case. Once we become accustomed to women in previously male roles, the “unsuitable” tag vanishes. I was discussing this with a female politician, who noted that the role of home secretary had lost its male associations in the past few years. Whatever you think of the individual women who have held the post, there are no generic anatomical disadvantages in their being female. Indeed, looking back, it is alarming to remember the aggressive male characteristics of some recent former incumbents. When I see the pugnacious faces of John Reid or Charles Clarke now, I am relieved for the sake of our national security to think that our present home secretary – and shadow home secretary – are both female.

. . .

To the Chelsea Flower Show, hurrah. A City journalist fretting over the clash between Google’s “Zeitgeist” dinner in Hertfordshire and the flower show weighed up for me the relative networking opportunities. I blinked. But what about the flowers? I am afraid that bank mergers could have taken place under my nose, but nothing would have shifted me from the foxgloves stall or the Daisy Boots nursery arrangements of irises and alliums.

I think we get the message that all show gardens should look like meadows and cowslips are the new roses. I am pleased to see the passing of the steel and concrete modernism of previous years, but meadows are in danger of becoming old hat. The really bold garden this year would have been formal, regimented, and have included a fountain.

Meanwhile, the traditional corporate world, usually nervous about appearing to enjoy itself in public, was out in confident style. There was no Steve Hilton- or Facebook-style informality here. The women were mostly dressed for a country wedding, the men in St James’s pinstripes. It was as if 1980s Conservatism had never gone away. I even spotted the pin-up of that era, Virginia Bottomley.

After the flower show I went as a guest of Thomson Reuters to a dinner to discuss world events at the charming Petyt Hall behind Chelsea Old Church. If we are to fathom the collapse of Europe, it is congenial at least to discuss it with the smell of jasmine wafting from the church gardens and watched over by the reproachful statue of Sir Thomas More.

. . .

If the Chelsea Flower Show had a scent of nostalgia, the Google Zeitgeist conference was all about day zero. I didn’t mind much hearing a wholly subsidised Guardian blogger dismiss print news as a steamship in an age of aviation. That is the prerogative of youthful industries. In fact, the conference was an illustration that authority survives technological democracy. Citizen journalists are a terrific news gathering operation, but the Google audience paid greatest attention to television economists, chief executives and, for the closing afternoon, Bill Clinton.

Although an earlier speaker had made the cheeky point that an African tribesman now had access to more information than was available to the former US president 15 year ago, Clinton has, I think, the advantage of turning information into profoundly crafted thought.

Contrast, too, the wonderfully geeky idealism of Google’s Larry Page, promising that all the world’s problems can be solved through optimism, democracy and technology, with Clinton’s call for hard-headed collaboration among the powerful. He did not expect perfect solutions, a workable treaty would do.

Another charge that was made about “old media” during the conference was that it crushed idealism and action with its scepticism. Don’t you need a bit of both? Without a few black-hearted old hacks in the Google mix, its powers could become untrammelled, and unquestioning belief in your own goodness is dangerous. Google is a fantastically successful business that must not be permitted to become a cult.

I went on to the Phillips de Pury building in SW1 to celebrate a second dawn of journalism at the inaugural dinner for the Journalism Foundation. Founded by the Lebedevs, owners of the Evening Standard and the Independent newspaper, the aim of the foundation is to promote free speech across the world. Never, I thought, can ethical journalism have appeared so glamorous, as models in dazzling dresses mingled with campaigners and journalists. The first couple of post-Leveson journalism, Jemima Khan and Hugh Grant, were there and so, interestingly enough, was Elisabeth Murdoch. Out of the ashes...

Sarah Sands is editor of the London Evening Standard

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