THE DOMINIC EFFECT
The Spectator, once a genteel conservative weekly, is hitting the headl ines with almost vulgar regularity. But the ambitions of its editor, Dominic Lawson, are by no m eans satisfied
Sunday 22 January 1995
Dominic Lawson, the Spectator's editor, is a close neighbour of mine, but until 10 days ago I had not had the chance to ask him about the article. I was interested, however, because I had encountered William Cash - red-faced, garrulous and pantomimic - late one night in a London restaurant and had gently tackled him on the piece. What was the point of it? Did he imagine he was being anti-Semitic, or had he believed that it was entirely acceptable? These were in the nature of unloaded questions. Cash
fizzed for several minutes about political correctness and then let slip that the article had taken a previous form. He went on to say, with a number of winks, gestures and significant focuses, that it had been Lawson who had insisted that the point about Jews in modern Hollywood be made in the piece. A friend whose fax had been used by Cash during the time of the article's composition nodded supportively in the background.
How odd, I thought. After all, Dominic Lawson is himself Jewish, although not especially conscious of it and not in any religious sense a Jew. He also seemed to me, at a distance, to be an editor with highish standards, and certainly not prone to inserting inflammatory remarks in a writer's copy. So I asked him about the Cash affair, which of course has been superseded in the national attention by other Spectator affairs concerning firstly Richard Gott, the Guardian's literary editor, reveale d to have been a KGB informant, and then Lord Charteris, who a fortnight ago said that the Duchess of York was a vulgarian.
This is what Lawson said: "Cash rang me up and said: `I want to do a piece saying this is basically a Jewish town'. I said, `It always has been. There is nothing new in that. If you do the piece you will have to cast it in the present.' Then the article came in and there was virtually nothing about Hollywood today. I said: `You have to say it is so now.' Then he did, and wrote a piece that - how shall I put it? - was somewhat more colourful than the one . . . I mean, I had to edit."
"You took bits out?" I asked.
"There were some things that went a bit far, which I cut, yes," he said. So to some extent the accounts overlap and confirm each other, but in one major respect they don't. Both Lawson and Cash have independently maintained since the controversy that they have the absolute right to point out that Hollywood is full of Jews without being accused of anti-Semitism. And yet here was each of them implying that the other was anti-Semitic, Cash in his insistence that the rewrite had been inspired by Lawson and Lawson in turn implying that Cash had gone overboard.
How very odd. Who was telling the truth? I decided to go with the Lawson version, although there seems to be enough reasonable doubt not to convict Cash. The piece went over the top and the reactions from here and America, although slow in coming, rattled both of them. Lawson subsequently wrote a 4,000-word attack on political correctness, having satisfied himself that he had hurt none of his relations and thus had not offended reasonable Jewish sentiment. Still, one has to wonder what it was all aboutand why this mediocre and, to my mind, slyly anti-Semitic article appeared in the magazine at all.
THE SPECTATOR has probably never been so famous in all its 167 years as it is under Dominic Lawson. He celebrates his fifth anniversary as editor in April and will shortly announce record operating profits of over £250,000 - not bad for a little weekly with a highbrow readership. And the circulation is doing well: the next ABC figures will record a figure of slightly over 50,000, about 20,000 more than when Lawson inherited the magazine from Charles Moore.
Before that, Lawson's career had not been especially spectacular. After an unhappy start at Eton, he left for Westminster, where he was a keen games player. He went on to Christchurch, Oxford, and then worked for The World Tonight and the Financial Times. He went to the Spectator (where his father, Nigel Lawson, had been editor in 1965), as Moore's deputy, in1987.
The trick of his editorship has been to keep the magazine in the public eye, gaining the attention of the newspapers and sometimes television with occasional controversies. These are a particular type of story, which relies not so much on investigation
as on the indiscretion, either of a writer like Cash or AN Wilson, or of a patrician subject who has been lulled by the magazine's cosy reputation. His first summer, Lawson kicked off with a piece by AN Wilson quoting the Queen Mother at a private dinnerparty; then Lawson himself interviewed Nicholas Ridley, who was rude about the Germans and had to resign from the Cabinet; and then there was the controversial interview with Lord Denning, in which Denning said that the death penalty would have been justified for the members of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six.
Even if the Spectator does not make national headlines every week, there is still the constant vibrato of Spectator gossip: what Perry says about the Prince of Wales; what Burchill thinks about Hunter Davies; what Richard Littlejohn thinks of Lord Wyatt.The Spectator addresses a tight little milieu and rejoices in the mischief that it regularly causes in the worlds of politics, journalism and letters. And, lest anyone should still be deluded, the Spectator is by no means cosy. Under Lawson it has developed as sharp a news sense as any of the tabloids, and in fact the attention that he gives to selling his magazine reminds one of several of the better-aimed popular newspapers.
Lawson, it is fair to say, has always puzzled his contemporaries. He is undoubtedly charming and intelligent, and yet there is something about him which is aloof, and seems not to be in quite the same key as everyone else. He is a chess fanatic and a fast bowler and very competitive in everything that he does, but he has an unworldly side - as if, like an existential hero, he suffered from a compulsive spiritual alienation and life only has meaning for him as an intriguing but remote game. I don't say that this is Dominic Lawson, but it is certainly his manner. It is perhaps why you find such strong reactions to him. People are either great fans and say that he is funny and warm, or they are wary and mistrustful of him.
Coming from the latter camp, surprisingly, is Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph who one would imagine to be a natural ally, being both a conservative and a mischief-maker. Two weeks ago in his Sunday Telegraph column Sir Perry described the Spectator as "Britain's erstwhile leading intellectual journal, which at any rate used to be the staple weekend reading of the more serious-minded clergy" and then attacked it for publishing "distasteful tosh", referring t o an articlewhich dwelt on the relationship between sexual stimulus and horse-riding.
How very odd. Sir Perry is, after all, a member of the Spectator board (the magazine is owned by the Telegraph group) and has often contributed to the magazine. So what was going on? Lawson was shifty on the subject and referred me to his letter in the following issue of the Sunday Telegraph which simply pointed out that Sir Peregrine had reprinted the dirtiest bits of the "Spectator tosh". It turns out that Sir Peregrine has never much liked Lawson and once unsuccessfully tried to block his membership of the Beefsteak Club. Things have not been easy between them since Lawson discovered this and suggested that if Sir Peregrine was a gentleman he would resign his own membership.
This has a curiously archaic ring to it: one sees two 18th- century gentleman of the wardrobe, periwigged and powdered, accusing each other in trembling falsettos of ignoble behaviour. But in modern terms it is interesting because it confirms the suspicion that once you enter a particular political environment
you always find the dear old comrades in arms are lunging at each other's throats. It's exactly the same in the Labour Party.
WHILE talking about the reactions to the Cash piece on Hollywood, Lawson said that he had had a number of letters from "filthy anti-Semites" supporting it. These were the kind of friends he didn't want. "That really did upset me. I always feel that one should rejoice in one's enemies. I take great pride in one's enemies."
I asked whether he felt he had many.
"Yes, I think I have more than I am aware of. I think most people are cowards. To my face they are polite and pleasant: I know of cases of people who are polite to me, but then behind my back . . . Well, let's say I have heard it reported back that so-and-so says this about me. I was always aware of this with my father: these people who came bowing and scraping to him, who probably didn't care much about him, but because of his status would show him enormous courtesy. I have been brought up to understand about people's hypocrisy and cowardice."
According to his friends, his relationship with Lord Lawson is crucial, but less so than it was. Dominic is now married to Rosa Monckton, the managing director of Tiffany's, and they have a two-year-old daughter. Like his sister Nigella, the newspaper columnist, he has his own life; and although he occupies the same office that his father held in the mid-Sixties, he finds himself standing in his own sunlight. "I get on with him intellectually. We both enjoy talking. But to be honest we are both reserved. If you have two people quite that way, it tends not to go beyond the intellectual. My grandfather - his father - would take me to football matches, but then he was a warmer, less intellectual man."
In his youth it was the whole family that counted. His maternal grandfather, who was killed by a bus when Dominic was 12, taught him chess, and he is still close to his grandmother, an enthusiastic bridge player. His father's intellect dominated, though .
"I think it had its good and bad sides. On the one hand it meant that the family always had discussions and we were encouraged to be open-minded and say what we thought. We were brought up to think of ourselves as special. My father set very high standa rds. If one didn't get a good report from school he could be very fierce. I used to rather dread those encounters. But on the good side he never said we had to believe in something because he said it. He's an intellectual bully but he's not authoritarianin that sense."
Earlier, I had asked if he felt he was arrogant - for, rightly or wrongly, the Lawsons have a reputation for it.
"It's not for me to say. I am not sufficiently thoughtful in that sense to judge."
"But you know," I said, "when you are right, and you stick by it."
"Is that what arrogance is?" said Lawson.
"Yes, and a certain delusion . . ." I said.
"I have faith in my own reasoning powers," he concluded.
Other people's cleverness, or lack of it, is a recurring theme of his conversation. He sees himself as clinically intellectual and fails to understand why people take offence when they are beaten in argument. "Rosa would probably say that I overestimate the rational, that I'm too concerned with the logic of things and sometimes miss the human aspects. I suddenly realise people have felt personally about it afterwards. I suppose it's a kind of insensitivity."
He was recently teased in Private Eye by Craig Brown ("One of the enemies I rejoice in") for asking Jonathan Dimbleby in an interview whether the Prince of Wales had a first-, second- or third-rate mind. It is an odd question; indeed, such questions always seem rather silly to me. People tend to be making a point about their own intelligence when they ask them, so I wondered how he rated himself.
There was some hesitation and then he said: "I think of it as a very good second-rate mind. In other words, I don't compare myself to Noel Malcolm [the academic and Telegraph journalist] and I don't compare myself to Freddie Ayer [A.J. Ayer, the philoso p her and his late step-father]. When I think of Noel - I think he is the cleverest man I know - I cannot conceive that I have a first-rate mind when I compare myself with him. He has an extraordinary ability to synthesise ideas, speak languages and to und erstand music.
"I am talking about the processing ability, the mind as a reasoning system. I have certain skills but I am not in the first rank."
Was he happy with this first-class, second-rate mind?
"No, I wish I was cleverer. I wish I had been a grandmaster, but I didn't have it so I do the best I can . . . but you see journalism isn't really pure intellect." He credits the Spectator with a number of sound judgements - an early assault on the ERM, for example, or the magazine's current anti-federalist stance - coming from his view that politics is only interesting if you weigh the intellectual validity of the ideas behind it.
THE THING that doesn't come across in these quotations is his sense of humour. He may have lost a little of it since I first met him round a supper table in Shepherd's Bush eight years ago, but he still finds life amusing and wears a bewildered grin which makes you want to laugh. He is also unintentionally funny, and I guarantee that anyone who had witnessed him eat a chocolate mousse - as I did, in precisely two nanoseconds - would not have kept a straight face. It was extraordinary. He was i n mid-sentence when the mousse arrived. He paused, as if for thought, and in five fluid scooping motions had emptied the dish. Then he returned to the Spectator' s politics, as if the mousse had never existed.
Actually, Spectator politics are unclear. That is to say, the magazine does not have a rigid ideology to which all its writers adhere. Principally it is libertarian, as Lawson is, but this is a sort of non-politics because libertarianism necessarily calls for less rather than more legislation. If you don't believe in legislation you don't have to think of much policy, although this is of course ludicrous in a modern world. So the Spectator is guided by a group of attitudes and reacts to events as the wary guardian of what it imagines to be the old, trusted values. It still bears the mark of Charles Moore's romantic conservatism, which was nostalgic and aspirational at the same time; and which was captured by the late Michael Oakeshott when he wrote: "The disposition to be a conservative is . . . warm and positive in respect of enjoyment, and correspondingly cool and critical in respect of change and innovation. The man of conservative temperament believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better. He is not in love with what is dangerous and difficult; he is unadventurous; he has no impulse to sail uncharted seas . . . What others plausibly identify as timidity, he recognises in himself as rational prudence."
This is what moves the Spectator intellectually - indeed it informs a great slew of British political thinking - and this is why the magazine finds itself slightly perplexed by the terrible pace of change. It responds with wryness, comforting blasts at modernity and, of course, mischief, all of which have corresponding elements in Lawson's character.
The Spectator's current success, inaugurated by Alexander Chancellor's editorship in 1975, has coincided with the conservative hegemony in political thought and with the ailing of left-inclined publications. In the Sixties, when Nigel Lawson was editor of the Spectator, it had been a different story. The New Statesman had attracted writers and editors like Dick Crossman, Anthony Howard, Alan Watkins and (though it seems incredible now) Paul Johnson. But competition from the left in the last 20 years hasbeen extremely feeble, chiefly because it was incapable of being "warm and positive in respect of enjoyment", but also because it was too earnest for the times.
WE MOVED on to Richard Gott, late of the Guardian books pages and the KGB. In the first week of December Lawson published an article by Alasdair Palmer and Anne Applebaum naming Gott as an agent of the Soviets. It was an embarrassing moment for the Guardian - a moment which, it goes without saying, Lawson relished hugely, for the paper had done great damage to the Conservative Party in the preceding weeks with its attacks on sleaze, and was also regarded by the Spectator as too self-satisfied by half.
Within hours of the Spectator appearing Gott had resigned from his post, idiotically saying that he had started his flirtation as "a hugely enjoyable joke". Coming after the episode of the "cod fax", Gott's exposure left the Guardian damaged, just as th e Conservative party had been, and the newspaper crept into the Christmas holiday feeling distinctly demoralised.
Game to Lawson, it would appear. But there are parts of the affair which have never been satisfactorily explained. The Guardian staff naturally suspected that Gott's name had been given to the magazine in retaliation for all the heartache the paper had caused the government. The Spectator, meanwhile, maintained that its information had "come from former members of the KGB, not serving members of our own security services". Their principal source was the KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky, who Laws o n later allowed it be known had been tricked by his hot-shot reporter, Alasdair Palmer. Gordievsky was said to be furious with Palmer. So the question was: what was the nature of this trick?
"He did trick him in the way that worked in All the President's Men when one of the journalists wanted to find out whether X is their man. In this case let's say X is Gott. So what Palmer did was to say: `Of course we all know about X, that's not intere s ting, but what we want to know about is Y.' To which Gordievsky agrees X is in fact a traitor and moves on to discuss Y. So Gordievsky was tricked, and when he realised he was very angry."
This is all very well, but how did Palmer know which name to place before Gordievsky? And, more interesting, why, when Gordievsky is said to be so angry with the Spectator, did we find him last week writing in its pages attacking the Guardian? How very odd, I thought; but that is the way with the Spectator. Just as you imagine that everything's straight, something occurs which makes you wonder what the hell is going on.
Lawson says today that the story is not that important in the greater scheme of things. "There was a kind of irony that the Guardian had always stood for the highest moral standards in public life. There was always this streak of puritanism to it. In a sense the more interesting story would have been to have found someone who was a Conservative MP in the KGB." (That is humbug, because it would have surprised nobody to find a Conservative MP on the books of the KGB - after all, they seem to be capable ofanything.)
No, what made the Gott story so delightful was the opportunity that it gave the Spectator and its friends to tease the Guardian: not just Paul Johnson, who plainly could not find enough foul things to say about the paper, but even Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, who did his best to steal the magazine's thunder by revealing that he had worked for the CIA. From the outside it must seem all rather baffling, journalists sniping at each other and writing indignant letters to each other's publications. No
matter: it leaves Lawson sitting pretty amid this wonderful publicity, occasionally having to look serious when there seems to be an issue or principal at stake. And it has all been very good for him and his magazine.
He is now 38 and clearly ready to move on to something bigger, perhaps a newspaper in Conrad Black's Telegraph group. Despite the air of unworldliness he is furiously ambitious - so ambitious that you can taste it. I noticed that it was at the point whenI started asking him about his future career that he became most concentrated and his leg started jigging. The next move is important, and there are a number of journalists cruising in Conrad Black's slipstream who are aiming for one of the top Telegraph jobs - Simon Heffer and Frank Johnson to name two - who will not be overjoyed with Dominic's recent successes.
I tried asking him about his future a couple of times and eventually got this answer: "I feel my own master. There's not much you can't do at the Spectator. You don't have to delegate what you don't want to delegate. But I think a daily newspaper would offer a lot of excitement, and I do miss that."
"So what do you want to do?" I asked.
"I would like to edit a big newspaper, but I am not unhappy doing what I am doing. The most important thing in life, in my opinion, is to be happy doing what you're doing. One shouldn't worry one's little head about what is going to happen in 10 years' time." As he said it, I thought of all the headlines he had accrued over the last few weeks and suddenly I wondered why he was limiting himself to a big newspaper. What we have in Dominic Lawson, surely, is a natural tabloid journalist. !
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