Statesmen and the `Statesman'

Is there a Labour conspiracy behind the latest ownership bid?
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The Independent Culture
THE FUTURE ownership of the New Statesman is less about the success or failure of a weekly news magazine than the machinations, conspiracy theories and paranoia of Labour ministers. But it makes a good tale.

The story that Robert Harris, the millionaire author of Fatherland and a Sunday Times columnist, was planning to buy the magazine from the ailing Postmaster General, Geoffrey Robinson, actually emerged in the form of a small paragraph in the Daily Mail in July. It was a small bomb which did not detonate - until this weekend.

Harris's interest re-emerged in the form of a well-spun story from the Vienna summit of European leaders on Friday and Saturday. Labour insiders believe the fingerprints of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's entourage in Vienna, namely his press secretary Charlie Whelan, are all over the story. The conspiracy theorists speculate that Mr Brown's friends re-leaked the story in order to try to scupper any deal between Mr Harris and Geoffrey Robinson's representatives. Because of Cabinet regulations, Mr Robinson has to have his business interests controlled by trustees to prevent conflicts of interest.

Mr Robinson is in Mr Brown's camp and his magazine is thought likely to help co-ordinate any future bid for the Labour leadership. Certainly it is in Mr Brown's interest to have the magazine attack Tony Blair from his political position, slightly to the left of the Prime Minister, rather than become a cheerleader for Blair under Mr Harris.

The Brown camp is thought to be concerned that Mr Robinson, whose career hangs in the balance after his apology to Parliament for placing some of his wealth in off-shore tax havens, might currently be in the mood to sell to Mr Harris in order to save his career. The logic of the Brown camp thesis is that Mr Robinson pleases Mr Blair and Mr Mandelson by selling the New Statesman to a Blair supporter - Mr Harris - and Blair in return rewards him by not kicking him out of the Cabinet.

In the middle is Mr Harris and Peter Wilby, editor of the New Statesman, who says the owner of the magazine never interferes with what he writes anyway. Mr Harris yesterday said that if he wins control of the title he would keep Mr Wilby in place. He says he has thought about buying the Statesman since the Eighties: "I see owning it it as a service to the left. It would be good fun - I would be publisher and I'd make it more entertaining. I want to see the writing come before the policy, not the other way around." He denies any desire to make it a Blairite fanzine: "The worst thing you could do is make the magazine look like a vehicle for any faction," Mr Harris said.

The whole argument may yet be academic. Mr Harris maintains claims about his wealth are exaggerated and that he needs partners to help him find the pounds 3m it will likely take to buy the magazine. "Now that it is out in the open I hope people come forward," he said.

Despite Mr Harris's claims that better writing is needed to help grow the New Statesman and Mr Wilby's efforts to boost its arts coverage, it is difficult to escape the notion that as long as it remains a plaything for Labour Party heavy-hitters it may never prosper.

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