'Statesman' staggers from crisis to crisis

While political magazines of the right thrive, why is the voice of the left so often in turmoil?; A weekly political mag should not be that hard either to found or keep going
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is odd, when you think about it, that while the Labour Party is in better shape than ever, and while everything seems to bode well for its prospects in the next election, there is still no decent broad- based magazine for people on the left to read. It's not, after all, primarily a question of money. In the general scale of things, a weekly political magazine should not be that hard either to found or to keep going.

One is not envisaging that elusive beast, the daily paper which would have to the Labour Party the same intimate relationship as the Telegraph has to the Tories. One is talking about a political and cultural weekly that would have to new Labour the same relationship as ... as the New Statesman had to old Labour. In fact, one is talking about the New Statesman.

Last week there was a deal of talk in the press about an attempt by Tony Blair's kitchen cabinet to get control of the moribund New Statesman, kick out its editor and replace him with a Blair-controlled stooge. Chief culprit in this story was a PR man called Brian Basham, who was said to be in the Blair loop. But Mr Basham tells me this is complete nonsense. He has only met Mr Blair once in his lifetime, and while he does indeed know several Labour figures (the Kinnocks, for instance) he is in no way linked to any Blairite plot.

I also phoned the effective owner of the New Statesman, Philip Jeffrey, and asked him whether he thought Mr Basham was a Blairite Trojan horse, intent on ensuring a loyal, stooge-like magazine. Mr Jeffrey said, in the course of a quite long conversation, that he thought Mr Blair had no interest in the New Statesman at all; he said that he would like to improve the Statesman to such an extent that Mr Blair would sit up and take notice of it. He also said that if Mr Blair had wanted a Trojan horse on the New Statesman, then the obvious candidate would be himself, Mr Jeffrey (a loyal member of Amersham Labour Party), but he had had no approaches of any kind from the Blair camp. In fact, he had had precious little connection at all with the magazine either.

So this idea that Steve Platt, the magazine's editor, was being forced to resign as part of a general attempt to stifle opposition to new Labour appears to emanate from Mr Platt's circle. It appears to be a spin - a genuine example of a spin - from spin-doctors as yet unidentified.

Mr Platt was indeed being asked to resign, had in fact agreed to resign, and the finance committee of the magazine met last Tuesday to draft a press release to say that he had resigned. The reason for this resignation was that a refinancing scheme was being developed, and that if the magazine was to be refinanced the new investors would expect there to be a new editor. They would expect someone who, the phrase goes, was better box office.

Yesterday, there was to have been a press conference at Brighton, announcing the new deal for the poor old Staggers and Naggers. Instead Mr Platt, having been persuaded, or having persuaded himself, that he was being hounded by unsavoury elements from Islington, decided not to resign. Mr Jeffrey learnt that the staff was about to pass a vote of no confidence in the board and decided to demand the resignation of the entire board. Christopher Price, the chairman, resigned, but Mr Basham has yet to do so. The other members have apparently refused to go. But, of course, the refinancing deal appears for the moment to be finished.

I say "for the moment" because Mr Jeffrey, who, as I reported above, was sweetness itself to me and in all his references to Mr Blair, gave this paper's correspondent a rather different impression last Friday, saying: "What has happened today is not good news for Tony Blair." Apparently Mr Jeffrey is subject to mood-swings. I got his sweetest side. He paid tribute to the enormous effort and sacrifices made by the board members whom he had just instructed to resign.

The situation, as far as I can see, is that Mr Jeffrey, as is his right, has appointed himself chairman of the board, and brought in the accountant Peter Jones to look at the books and to decide whether or not to close the magazine down. Mr Jones has actually been looking at these books, to the best of my knowledge, for the past two decades. Perhaps he will come up with something this time. Perhaps not. Meanwhile he has the defiantly unresigned former members of the board to deal with.

The boards of the New Statesman have a not very happy history. In 1978, when I was one of the candidates for editorship, the paper owned its building in Lincoln's Inn Fields, had money in the bank and made, as a company, an operating profit. All the candidates who made proposals within the fairly cautious old parameters were turned down in favour of an expansionist scheme intended to turn the Statesman into a news magazine on the lines of, say, Der Spiegel. The scheme was batty, went off at half-cock and the capital was soon used up.

In 1990 the magazine faced bankruptcy but was saved in part by the investments made by two staff members. In one week, in January 1992, the Prime Minister and his caterer sued the magazine and its distributors for libel, the distributors settled their side and under the terms of their contract passed on to the magazine the bill for pounds 250,000, about which it could do nothing. (The magazine's own part in the legal action was settled on much more modest terms.)

When it started going under again in l993, there was interest from the quarter of one Derek Coombs, a former Tory MP, who is now the biggest single shareholder in Prospect, the new political magazine that was launched last week. The board split between supporters of Mr Coombs, who seemed OK except for having been a Tory, and Mr Jeffrey, who was eccentric but was at least Labour. Mr Jeffrey was chosen by one vote, and has since (with his wife) put the best part of pounds 600,000 into the company. He owns 49 per cent, Mr Platt owns 1.5 per cent. Hence the block vote.

If Mr Jeffrey intends to put the paper in the hands of the receivers, he may well thereby end up delivering it into the hands of his old rival for ownership, Mr Coombs. If Mr Platt digs in, in the name of resistance against Stalino-Blairite stifling of free speech, he may find his position overrun by an old Tory. Could someone make either of these fine individuals see sense?