Media: The Spectator: crisis, what crisis?

Amid rumours that staff are rebelling and his star is falling, Frank Johnson, editor of the right's favourite weekly, talks to Darius Sanai

Frank Johnson, the editor of The Spectator, tweedy and academic under his expanse of grey hair, sits behind a vast desk piled high with papers and books.

He looks at you rather as a history teacher would if you were a pupil who had never really bothered to learn the difference between Waterloo and Peterloo.

Sitting in his editor's study - a fusty, dark room in a Georgian house in Bloomsbury, London, which could never be called an office - he can't help giving a history lesson. Today it is on his favourite subject: the Conservative Party.

I ask meekly about his personal philosophy of Tory populism and he is delighted to explain the parallels between the dilemma of the Tories now and the party in the 19th century after the Corn Laws were repealed.

Frank Johnson has been at the helm of the ideological weekly of the right for just over three years. Despite gently rising circulation (now at 57,025) and the recent development that the magazine is actually making a profit, whispers against the incumbent editor and accusations that the magazine has lost its way are increasing in some quarters.

Sales soared under Mr Johnson's two eminent predecessors, Charles Moore and Dominic Lawson - now editors of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph respectively - and detractors say they are now peaking. There is no coherent Spectator ideology, say others.

"It needs originality of ideas and debate," says a respected contributor. "You feel it's caught between two stools. It's neither defining an ideological debate, but nor is it opening itself out to be a more general interest magazine."

There has even been talk of a strike at The Spectator among production staff disgruntled with Mr Johnson's habit of delaying until the very last minute what to put in the magazine. "He insists on all the different possibilities for a page being laid out and waits until they're right up against it and people are getting to the end of their tether." Think of industrial action by members of the Reform Club and you come close to imagining a strike at The Spectator.

When I repeat the editorial criticisms to Mr Johnson, he seems taken aback. "I think I have opened it up to quite a diverse body of views, particularly since the general election."

Though not given to showing off - he's reluctant even to list the things he likes about his magazine - he doesn't seem like a man who takes kindly to criticism - in fact, he seems to take it personally, a sign of someone who harbours a fundamental insecurity.

When I remind him that the liberal press had some fun at his expense after he predicted a Tory victory at the last election, he harrumphs, "Did they, hmm."

"He's chippy about being an autodidact surrounded by Oxbridge types," says someone who knows Mr Johnson well. "Even though he knows more than most of them, the chippiness is still obvious."

Mr Johnson, who was educated at Shoreditch Secondary School, where he dropped out before doing his A-levels, says he has now created the magazine he wants, with views from across the spectrum; to balance the rightwingers there are regular contributions by Sion Simon, a New Labourite, and a weekly column by Matthew Parris, a Tory of the liberal tendency.

From his own right-wing perspective, Mr Johnson may think The Spectator has broadened its appeal, but the apolitical reader flicking through may think otherwise: right-wing heavies such as Bruce Anderson, Paul Johnson, Stephen Glover and Taki appear in every issue.

Whatever their politics, the terrible trio of Johnson, Glover and Taki have given The Spectator its best sport this season. The spat began when The Spectator writers challenged the veracity of The Guardian's investigation into the activities of the two former Tory ministers, Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken. "I believe Neil Hamilton never took those brown envelopes stuffed with cash, though I don't have any evidence," says Mr Johnson.

The Guardian recently devoted two pages to cataloguing the magazine's obsession with it - perhaps indicating that The Guardian may be equally obsessed with The Spectator.

Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian's editor, has sent Mr Johnson two letters asking what sort of publication he thinks he's editing. "I've never heard of a national newspaper editor doing something like that," he ponders. "I think Alan Rusbridger just isn't used to anyone disagreeing with him." Perhaps, though, Mr Rusbridger just resents The Spectator's columnists casting aspersions on his journalists without any evidence. "They're free to write what they want. I think it's all very amusing," Mr Johnson says.

Like any good Tory boss, Mr Johnson dismisses the talk of a strike among his staff: "It just isn't going to happen," he says. "I am very late in deciding what to put in on Tuesday night, because I have to make sure that it's still relevant when people buy it two and a half days later."

And of the ever-present rumours that the magazine's owner, Conrad Black, is about to sack him and appoint someone else as editor, he says quite simply: "I'm sure if Conrad Black wasn't happy with the magazine he would tell me."

The magazine's publisher, Kimberley Fortier, says Mr Johnson is a "very commercially aware editor, much more tuned in than lots of editors of glossies". This week the venerable magazine sees a redesign, bringing more colour and a clearer layout aimed, Mr Johnson says, at "addressing that perennial question, bringing younger readers in without losing the older ones".

Has Mr Johnson no fear that The Spectator is in danger of becoming an anachronism? "I think it is essential reading because we're better informed about New Labour than any other publication," he responds.

Mr Johnson is so enthusiastically dedicated to his baby that you can't help but hope he is right. But within the broader context of a rapidly modernising media and society, you have to wonder.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?