Media: Keep to the Left - for that feel-bad factor

Is it impossible to sell left-wing periodicals without a heavy dose of guilt?
  • @mrjohnofarrell
This month sees the fifth birthday of Red Pepper, the radical red and green magazine that has defied all predictions by surviving in a market that has seen so many left-wing publications put into the back of the 2CV and driven down to the newspaper recycling depot. It competes with a handful of other socialist titles and, although its circulation has recently improved, the market for radical periodicals remains woefully tiny. The socialists who launch left-wing magazines needn't worry about the ethics of making millions from sales, because it is not a moral dilemma they will ever face.

Not that it's for want of trying. Only this week, for example, I received a carefully targeted mailshot from the New Statesman that read "Dear John O'Farrell, Subscribe now and get a free copy of Things Can Only Get Better by John O'Farrell." As it happens, I've already read it.

Perhaps it's a little unfair that left-wing papers should be judged solely by their performance in the capitalist market. Indeed, Hilary Wainwright of Red Pepper says that the magazine was created to fill a political gap rather than a gap in the market. But it seems amazing that even when 13-and-a-half million people have elected a Labour Government, left-leaning journals cannot break through and sell alongside more mainstream publications such as Asian Babes and Guns and Ammo Monthly. The perceived wisdom is that people do not want to read about politics.

In fact, millions of highly political publications are bought every day in this country, but the ones that sell do not wear their politics on their sleeves. The Daily Telegraph doesn't call itself "The Daily Capitalist" ("read how the bosses are making massive profits out of the workers"). The Times doesn't have a strap line saying "Defending the interests of the Establishment and maintaining the class system". Similarly, on the left you can read some fairly radical opinions hidden away in Time Out or the "Footnotes" pages of Private Eye. But if a magazine wishes to be overtly political it seems doomed to be sold only in progressive bookshops, or outside Woolworth's by people in donkey jackets and fingerless gloves. Perhaps it is because being "political" is still seen as a term of abuse by many people in this country. An ordinary Labour voter may be happy to be seen reading Viz or Loaded, but they would feel self-conscious sitting on the Tube reading something that might make them appear to be a deranged lefty or, even worse, an intellectual. Those of us who do buy these magazines find that they contain very little to cheer us up. We buy them because we feel guilty. For many years I subscribed guiltily to the New Internationalist and studied its clearly laid-out charts and graphs showing how the West was hogging seven-eighths of the world's guilt and how we really ought to share more of our guilt with developing countries. Left-wing publications are the political equivalent of Slimming Magazine. By buying them you are not really doing anything to tackle the problem, but at least you've acknowledged that something ought to be done.

That is an inherent problem with articles that challenge the way we live. Flicking through magazines is something we do for pleasure, yet reading about the victims of the bombing of Belgrade makes you feel terrible. There is an inherent "feel-bad factor" that you just don't get when you read Elle Decoration. This is particularly true of publications of the far left, where the editorial line is to be opposed to everything. There are still many writers on the left who are instinctively "oppositionalist", railing against anything that is perceived as mainstream or popular, thereby condemning themselves and their papers to the margins. When I flick through the pages of Socialist Worker I still feel as if I am being shouted at, five minutes after I've bought the paper.

At least with magazines such as Red Pepper, New Internationalist, Tribune and New Statesman you cannot always predict what the line will be. On the board of Red Pepper, for example, there were people for and against the military action against Serbia, which means you are witness to a debate rather than a lecture. And considering that they cannot afford to pay proper rates for the articles, they still manage to attract contributions from impressively high-profile writers. Perhaps these journalists are prepared to take a pay cut because they understand it is not just how many people are reading your stuff that matters; it's also who is reading it. By their very nature these magazines are read by people who are at the centre of decision-making. Now that there are more than 400 Labour MPs in the House of Commons, a well-argued piece in New Statesman or Tribune can be far more influential than their modest circulations may suggest. They have a direct line to the people in power, much as the editorials of What Caravan did when John Major was Prime Minister.

But it is still depressing that we live in a society where there are more magazines devoted to steam trains than there are to politics. Most political debate in this country takes place within a narrow range; we are given the impression that there is nothing to the left of Tony Blair and nothing to the right of - well, Tony Blair. That's why it is important to read and support publications that broaden the discussion, even if you think you may not agree with much of what they say. So go out and buy a copy of Red Pepper or New Statesman or Renewal or Tribune or New Internationalist, and at least have a look at Socialist Worker to see what other people have to say. Because it's healthy to have our presumptions challenged, interesting to read about issues not given prominence in the mainstream press, and vital that the voice of the radical left continues to be heard. And anyway, you've got to hide your copy of Hello! in something.

John O'Farrell is the author of `Things Can Only Get Better' (Black Swan, pounds 6.99)

The Left Line-up

New Statesman

Editor: Peter Wilby

Circulation: 24,000

High: Made it to 86th year of publication last week.

Low: Staff member bugging editorial board meeting.


Editor: Mark Seddon

Ciculation: 10,000

High: Editor and MP Chris Mullin's work on the Birmingham Six

Low: Robin Cook addressing the once excessively radical Tribune rally

New Internationalist

Editor: David Ranson

Circulation: 47,000 (UK)

High: 1989 circulation peaked 50 000.

Low: Endless junk

mail subscription drives.

Red Pepper

Editor: Hilary Wainwright

Circulation: 11,000

High: John Smith's advisor used Red Pepper to voice firm criticism of Gordon Brown.

Low: 1995 financial crisis cost them their editor.