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Peter Wilby

Swimming (weakly) against the tide

British Journalism Review
Vol. 16, No. 3, 2005, pages 23-30

Peter Wilby now writes a column on the media for the New Statesman.

Contents - Vol 16, No 3, 2005

Editorial - Pass the salt 3

Matthew Bannister - Suddenly, my hands were shaking 7

Gill Farrington - The tattered man with only one shoe 12

Jason McLure - All quiet in Dubuque 17

Peter Wilby - Swimming (weakly) against the tide 23

Mark Mardell - Why I'm taking on Europe 31

Bill Hagerty - Mr Deedes takes a gamble 37

Peter Preston - How not to defend your source 47

Rob Blackhurst - The freeloading question 53

Lloyd Page - Disability: lessons to be learnt 61

Terence Doyle - Hey! Let's start a magazine 67

James Lawton - How best to wrestle a giant 73

Bill Hagerty - It's cricket, but is it journalism 79

Richard Stott on Bob Woodward 85

Frank Whitford on Martin Rowson 87

Mark Hollingsworth on Annie Machon 90

John Herbert on Hugh de Burgh 92

The way we were 36

Political correspondents poll 95

Paul Foot Award - Inside back cover

  I edited the New Statesman for almost exactly seven years from 1998 to 2005. I was the longest-serving occupant of that chair since Kingsley Martin, to whose record 29 years I never aspired. Martin took the view that “an editor's paper should be his mistress” and, like him, I “ate, drank and slept” with the New Statesman. No clumsy phrase (I liked to think) went unamended, no headline unimproved, no comma unscrutinised. My excuse for such excessive attention to detail was that the penurious NS could not afford more than one or two people to help me. But in all honesty, the real reason was that I wanted to stamp my personality on every page of the paper, at least in the politicallyoriented front-half. Or, as some would say, I was just a chronic re-writer of other people's copy and a bad delegator. “You've finally got what you always wanted, Wilby,” said a former colleague who had suffered my re-writing “skills” on another publication. “A paper where you have to do everything yourself.”

Was it all worth it? Did I reverse the long-term decline of the New Statesman and end the general consensus, which had existed almost since Martin's retirement in 1959, that its best days were behind it? Not, I fear, if the circulation figures were any guide. The day I took over, the NS was selling 22,500 copies, having exceeded 25,000 during the thrilling dawn of New Labour (thrilling to some, at any rate) in 1997. That level was reached again in the aftermath of 9/11, and through the Afghan and Iraq wars, and the subsequent fall this time was less sharp. But it was a meagre reward for my years of effort, even though I could claim to have played a significant role in turning a substantial financial loss into a healthy operating profit and, unlike a number of editors, had avoided both alcoholism and mental breakdown.

Departing an editorship is rather like departing life: a wake is held and people say kind, even flattering, things about you. And it is true the New Statesman's future is more secure now than it has been for many years, making that “Staggers” nickname redundant. But according to the goals I set myself, I failed. I scarcely improved on the circulation I inherited, while our rival, The Spectator, as people never tired of pointing out, continued to forge ahead. True, our marketing budget was small, we lacked the resources of a large organisation and our “free”, or “below cover price” sales (significant in almost any other circulation figure you will read), were virtually nonexistent. But I had envisaged a magazine so compulsively readable, so gripping in its analysis that it would again become, as Malcolm Muggeridge described it towards the end of the Martin era, “an inevitable addiction”. I made many converts, but I did not hold enough of them and I can't blame the marketing budget for that. Nor can I blame any restraints imposed by my proprietor, Geoffrey Robinson MP, who left me free to be as outrageous as I wished. Where did I go wrong? Can my successor learn from my mistakes, if mistakes they were?

Paper of the middle classes

First, a little history. Kingsley Martin's New Statesman was essentially a paper (I call it a “paper” because he always did) of the middle-classes – “knowing, knowledgeable and somewhat superior”, as Alan Watkins later described it. It was the house journal, not so much of the Labour Party in general, but of what have been called the Hampstead intellectuals (few of whom, of course, actually lived in Hampstead or anywhere near it): academics, senior civil servants, barristers, and so on, with a leftish/liberal cast of mind. In this it was distinct from Tribune, which was the paper of the trade unions and Labour activists. (Most Labour MPs then read both.) Both were on the Left – there is no example of a successful weekly of the Labour right – but the politicians who wrote for the New Statesman took care, to quote Watkins again, “not to find themselves too far to the Left”. Examples included Harold Laski, Barbara Castle and Richard Crossman, who was for a short period the editor.

The NS was characterised by a strong moral tone but it was a morality that applied to politics not to personal behaviour. Indeed, by the standards of the time, it was remarkably frank and liberal about sex, using the word “bugger” as early as 1933. It was anti-colonialist, anti-hanging and anticensorship. It was oppositionalist by instinct, even when Labour was in power. Maynard Keynes, one of its early benefactors, said there was no pleasing the NS and A P Herbert called it the “bilious weekly”.

The paper, in all its essentials, remained the journal of the Hampstead intellectuals – now augmented by a growing class of media professionals – for nearly two decades after Martin's departure. But there was a sharp break in 1978 when Anthony Howard was succeeded as editor by Bruce Page. Page, Australian by origin, thought the NS represented an outdated, Oxbridgebased English elitism. He wanted to introduce the grittier, “qualipop” values of The Sunday Times, where he had headed the Insight team under Harold Evans. The NS, he believed, instead of being a journal of laconic comment, should make the same kind of waves as Insight had with its celebrated investigations into Thalidomide and the crash of the Turkish Airlines DC-10 in Paris in 1974. The paper would thus, he hoped, attract younger readers from a wider range of backgrounds.

This is not the place to describe in detail what happened over the next 20 years. It is sufficient to say that the New Statesman passed through a succession of editors all of whom had quite distinct visions of its role. In the wake of the merger with New Society, for example, it aspired to be a journal of social as well as political comment.

Later, Steve Platt, declaring that Westminster was increasingly irrelevant, developed an agenda around the growing ferment of extraparliamentary politics. During his editorship, Platt and his staff were as likely to be found outside the Labour Party conference, brandishing protest banners, as inside it. His successor – and my immediate predecessor – Ian Hargreaves entirely reversed this, putting the NS at the forefront of the New Labour project, and turning it from an outsider's magazine into an insider's one. It marketed itself, with some success, as a journal that not only had unique insight into a new political phenomenon but was also helping to shape it. If you wanted to find the Third Way, the NS was the place to look.

All these visions had something to be said for them. And the NS had many fine moments. The investigative journalist Duncan Campbell frequently exposed state secrets, leading to police raids on the magazine's offices and precious column inches of free publicity. Stuart Weir (editor, 1987-90) put the magazine in the forefront of Charter 88, campaigning for constitutional reform. Hargreaves made it essential reading for those who wished to understand New Labour and to follow its internal debates. But the truth was that the NS rejected, perhaps rightly, one identity and failed to establish another. Some visions were inherently flawed. “Platt wanted Swampy [the anti-roads activist] to read the NS,” an NS colleague once said. “The trouble is, Swampy doesn't read magazines.”

The biggest problem, however, was that, with a high turnover of editors, each a very different personality from his predecessor, no vision lasted long enough – or was supported by a big enough marketing spend – to create a clear idea in readers' minds as to what the NS was about. The Hampstead intellectual, as Martin had understood the creature, was extinct, partly because so many of the things that had moved him (occasionally her) were no longer issues. Colonialism was finished, hanging and censorship abolished, abortion and homosexuality legalised. Tribune faced the same dilemma because the unions and the Labour Party constituency activists were declining both in numbers and influence.

The two main weekly magazines of the Right, meanwhile, were developing a very clear identity and a precise notion of their audience. The Economist became the international business executive's magazine, the bible of globalisation and the free market. Almost stifling in its monotonal certainties and infuriating in the arrogance of its judgments, it nevertheless became essential reading for the rising young executive or market trader. The Spectator – whose circulation in the early 1970s fell to lower levels than the NS ever plumbed – became the magazine of the fogeys, far more playful in tone than the Economist and less enamoured of something as new-fangled as globalisation.

A treat to readers

If Hargreaves aspired to a left-wing Economist, I aspired to a left-wing Spectator. The New Statesman, I thought, had acquired, over a long period, a reputation for dull writing and earnestness. It needed better prose, a lighter touch, more mischief, more wit and more humour. It needed, in short, to offer a treat to its readers (in return for a cover price equivalent to the cost of four daily papers), a magazine that people wanted to read rather than one they felt they ought to read. At the same time, I believed, it needed to move sharply to the Left, distancing itself from New Labour while staying in the mainstream – a position perhaps a little to the left of Roy Hattersley or Clare Short, but to the right of Tony Benn or Jeremy Corbyn. Without excluding dissenting voices, the NS should be as unashamedly left-wing as The Spectatorwas right-wing. It should appeal to the heartlands of socialism as The Spectator appealed to the heartlands of conservatism.

I am perhaps too close to my editorship – and too inhibited by a variety of loyalties – to give an adequate account of its results. So the following account must be regarded as tentative, provisional and incomplete.

There were several problems with my vision, or at least with the way I implemented it. First, I had no marketing budget to establish a new identity for the New Statesman. Robinson, having invested heavily in the magazine when he took control in 1996, now quite reasonably expected it to cut its operating losses, if not to break even. Lacking the marketing wherewithal, I needed to ensure that the NS's identity was unequivocally stated through its content. But, I now think, I was too eclectic, commissioning writers from across the political spectrum: from John Pilger, who regards Tony Blair as nothing less than a war criminal, through Anthony Giddens, the guru of the Third Way, to Simon Heffer, the Thatcherite jihadist. Indeed, The Guardian, which most of our readers took as their daily paper, frequently commented disapprovingly on the number of Tories in our pages.

The second problem was to find sufficient humour and wit on the left. As John O'Farrell recorded in Things Can Only Get Better, the activist left had come to believe, particularly after the advent of Margaret Thatcher, that any kind of laughter signified an inner frivolity and therefore betrayed the poor and the downtrodden. The only politically proper expression, it seemed, was a permanent scowl; many believed that the rebels of 1968 had failed because they hadn't taken themselves seriously enough.

This is not to suggest that amusing left-wingers don't exist. Nick Cohen, Paul Routledge, Mark Thomas, and Suzanne Moore, and (in the less straightforwardly political category) Hunter Davies, Andrew Billen and Andrew Martin were all NS contributors and all of them write wittily and well, as does Rory Bremner, who wrote a number of cover stories for us and has now been signed by my successor as a weekly columnist. But such writers were not plentiful and we frequently enlisted others who read amusingly elsewhere but often seemed to believe that a heavier, more serious tone was necessary in the New Statesman. Jokes were dangerous because they might fall foul of one of the Left's numerous prohibitions on offending women, gays, ethnic minorities, disabled people and so on. Once, the Left mocked the Right for its pomposity of language and its insistence on “correct” behaviour; now it is the other way round.

Third, it became evident to me that public boredom and disillusion with Westminster-based politics was increasing rapidly. This was, for a time, disguised by the rise of New Labour and the hopes it carried for a contemporary Left idealism that would command wide support. But by the final year of my editorship, I had established a golden rule for our covers: they must never carry a picture or drawing of a British politician, whether it be Blair, Brown, Howard or Kennedy. We knew from bitter experience that the news trade sales invariably fell – even when the subject seemed entirely irresistible, as in the case of David Blunkett and his affair with Kimberly Quinn. For this, I suspect, the growth in the volume of media available to the public is as much to blame as the failings of the politicians themselves. Newspapers have two or three times as many pages as they did two decades ago, before the Wapping revolution and the advent of 24-hour news channels. I am old enough to remember the time when even the most upmarket daily had only one resident political columnist. Now there is no end to the analysis and comment, instantly offered on even the smallest political development, and there are simply not enough political anoraks around who want more.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, the identity crisis of the New Statesman is bound up with the identity crisis of the Left itself. Some people profess to find it puzzling that, with Labour in power, the right-wing papers and magazines are still the most successful in their various markets: the Daily Mail, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph (still the highest-selling upmarket daily, despite its decline), The Sun (though it nominally supports New Labour), the Economist and The Spectator. But if it were true that people's reading habits swing with their voting habits, why did the New Statesman under Kingsley Martin flourish over a period when Labour was almost continuously out of power?

Enthusiasm re-fired

The central point is surely that, whatever the failings of the British Conservative Party, the Right remains confident and aggressive. Although out of power, it has not lost faith in its ideas and its view of the world. The explicit mission of New Labour, by contrast, was to reject many of the Left's traditions and start afresh, adopting much of the Thatcher agenda – markets, law and order, back to basics in the schools, and so on – and reinterpreting it to achieve centre-left goals. For many active Labour Party members, starved of success and power for so long, this programme was enough to re-fire their enthusiasm. But it was no basis for an ideas-driven weekly magazine – which was why I felt it necessary to break from the Hargreaves model.

New Labour welcomed ideas only within very tight boundaries; most of them were technocratic rather than inspirational. Almost everybody on the Left feared anything that could be described as old Labour, egalitarian, Communist, Trotskyist, or just loony. Rather as children avoid stepping on cracks in the pavement for fear of awakening demons, so the Left avoided the merest hint of unorthodoxy in the apparent belief that it risked an instant return to Tory government. As I wrote in the The Observer in November 1997: “New Labour is a tightly-corseted, suburban party, and almost everybody connected with it – in academia as well as in Westminster – keeps the curtains tightly drawn lest the neighbours catch them running wild with ideas.” There has been nothing like the intellectual excitement and ferment that emerged on the Left during and immediately after the Second World War, or on the Right in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

I must here emphasize that, if I failed to overcome these difficulties, I blame nobody but myself. Staff, contributors and readers bear no responsibility for an editor's shortcomings, still less the Government. If there was a lack of ferment, it was partly my job to create it. My goal was to make the New Statesman a witty, readable, confident and ground-breaking paper of the Left. I believe I partially succeeded in those aims. I did not succeed as much as I had hoped – or, more precisely, did not succeed in convincing enough readers of my achievement – because I was swimming against the tide, and I was not, as it proved, a strong enough swimmer.

How far my successor, John Kampfner, wishes to swim in the same direction, I do not know. But he is well placed to make one very important change that I was too slow to make as decisively as I now think I should have done. The market gap, I believe, is no longer in the coverage of Westminster and Whitehall, which is done comprehensively (too comprehensively perhaps) in the national press and on radio and TV. Where British readers are ill-served is in their understanding of the wider world. Media organisations have heavily reduced their foreign bureaux and even the Financial Times now puts UK news ahead of its foreign news. They have all to some extent repaired their foreign coverage since 2001, but not nearly enough. None has more than one or two commentators writing with true authority on geopolitical affairs. The New Statesman's best-selling issues in the last year or two of my editorship were on such subjects as Palestine, Iran, Islam and George W Bush. Our most popular writer was John Pilger, who, while his views may not be to everyone's taste, is firmly associated in the public's mind with high-class foreign reporting.

The Left has always been more naturally outward-looking than the Right but, as critics of my editorship often suggested to me, the terms “Left” and “Right” are probably outdated in this and most other contemporary contexts, since few people now define themselves with such labels. So I will simply note the New Statesman was famed for its informed (though sometimes wrong-headed) coverage of world affairs under Kingsley Martin and that a revival of this approach may offer its best hope for the future. Many of the issues that preoccupy us – terrorism, global warming, the rule of cut-throat capitalism, migration – are not truly soluble except on an international scale. This is the point at which a political weekly can re-connect with the idealistic young. Kampfner, a former Reuters and Daily Telegraph foreign correspondent, as well as a former political correspondent, has the perfect background to follow this path. I wish him luck.