When New Statesman editor John Kampfner heard The Spectator had hired Alex James as an associate editor last week, he is said to have guffawed. So did many Spectator detractors in the media world, who saw it as the icing on the inflated sponge cake that the magazine has become under the editorship of Matthew d'Ancona.
To be fair to James, he has earned his stripes as a writer, in this paper, The Guardian and with a well-received autobiography - the reason d'Ancona cites for having hired the former Blur bassist. However, since Boris Johnson relinquished his throne 18 months ago, the new user-friendly agenda at the 179-year-old title has been so relentless that it would put David Cameron's modernisation of the Conservatives to shame.
Much is attributed to d'Ancona's ever-expanding social tentacles. As well as hiring a rock star, d'Ancona has also brought on board Oscar Humphries, the son of "Dame Edna" and arguably someone more comfortable in Boujis than the Carlton Club. Earlier this year, he had Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis signed up as a columnist, until the BBC flip-flopped and withdrew permission.
Keen on the internet, d'Ancona also flaunts his connections through a well-used Facebook page. He lists over 300 friends including Irwin Stelzer, Nicholas Coleridge and William Dalrymple. Politics it ain't.
Just as the new Spectator editor was settling in last summer, Kampfner oversaw a radical overhaul of the New Statesman. There was a redesign costing around £300,000 and a vital injection of humour with the hiring of Rory Bremner, Julian Clary and Shazia Mirza. Circulation has risen to nearly 29,000. But while d'Ancona courted the celebrities, Kampfner's base has been very different, and telling in his output at the magazine.
Previously a political commentator on the Today programme, he took over at the Statesman in 2005. He eschews social networking and his circle is mainly made up of journalists who have become friends – John Humphrys, Rosie Millard, Roly Keating, Mark Ellen and Jon Snow.
"John is far less interested in social ambition," says one old colleague. "He can be ruthless when it comes to furthering his own career, but the people he spends time with are real friends and his family. He's not won over by glitzy new names."
The distinctive styles of the two are demonstrated by their respective summer parties. The Spectator's, held at its new offices in St James's in July, featured a throng of senior Conservatives from George Osborne down. The new Prime Minister was mobbed. Adding a decadent edge to proceedings were Nancy dell'Olio and Caprice.
The Statesman held its party 10 days ago in the austere surroundings of the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Gordon Brown also showed up there, though his appearance was more low-key. Ministers Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper stopped by for champagne, as did writer Will Self. However, while the Spectator party buzzed with gossip and subversion, the Statesman do never looked in danger of descending into a carnival.
When I ask Kampfner whether he would have liked Alex James in his fold, he dodges the question, saying the Statesman is "reluctant to use people who are regulars in The Guardian and Observer" because of readership crossover. He does keenly pull out his magazine's own pop credentials, naming both Massive Attack and the very du jour Snow Patrol as recent writers of the Statesman diary. Kampfner is as aware as d'Ancona that big names draw readers back to a magazine – he proudly gives over space to Rageh Omaar, former editor Peter Wilby and John Pilger. "My whole ethos is, how do you turn our type of edgy radical journalism into a treat? You can do lifestyle journalism and centrist journalism and make people feel good – but not angry and energised. When you go radical, there is a danger that it becomes a gloomy form of journalism – people just getting cross and empty comments. I've tried to reconcile the two. We are big, we are bright but at the same time our readers are not complacent – they want to change the world."
Kampfner stresses that he and d'Ancona are good friends and have a pact not to criticise each other's publications. But if one is talking about a political magazine doing lifestyle journalism, The Spectator's "You've Earned It" springs to mind. It started after d'Ancona took up the editorship in February 2006, after being deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph. Old Spectator readers poured scorn on new glossy features about the best sort of white sheets to buy. The section was a special project of new publisher Andrew Neil, whose arrival also precipitated the departure of respected media commentator Stephen Glover and Canadian neo-con Mark Steyn.
At Boris Johnson's leaving do, deputy editor Stuart Reid said: "The Spectator is given to us in trust. It is more than just a product and more than just a brand." It was prescient; that d'Ancona let Neil's "You've Earned It" and soft business interviews into the magazine was seen as a weakness. He was perceived as a yes-man who would not be able to maintain the magazine's grip on the throat of Parliament, and could not aspire to Johnson's wit. His social manoeuvring since has not helped his image for discernment and gravitas. "Matthew is the sort of man who, if he sees an apple cart go past, would put an apple on it," says someone who knows him well.
For those who recall indulgently the days of Alexander Chancellor and Dominic Lawson, it is inevitable that d'Ancona quickly came under a lot of fire. To his credit, however, The Spectator is up to a circulation of 73,204 – a rise of 4.4 per cent from when he took over without a significant relaunch to boost its sales. The website is thriving. "You've Earned It" has now morphed into the less outwardly bourgeois "Style and Travel". Importantly, his staff have fallen into line. Fond as they were of Boris, they now speak warmly about Matthew.
D'Ancona is also taking the slings and arrows more lightly. "The Spectator seems to have a mesmeric hold on the nation's gossip columns and people's imaginations," he says. "The editor is always going to be written about. It amuses me how many times they can print a picture of me in a black tie; I rarely go to black-tie dos. The publicity The Spectator gets is part of its brew. I am not particularly faint-hearted."
Kampfner in turn is aware that one's social and intellectual circles are as much a part of a magazine's identity as its content. He in turn is promising a new raft of contributing editors in the autumn, and hints he too may have a few surprises up his sleeve. Surely Noel Gallagher hasn't taken up writing opinion pieces?
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