A simply frightful spot of bother

When Tatler sent advertisers a postcard claiming that its sales had overtaken those of rival Harpers and Queen, it was just the opening salvo in an increasingly vicious circulation war
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They call it the Handbag War, and the latest skirmish is the most vicious yet. On one side of Regent Street, in central London, a tall, handsome woman with a Scottish tang to her pristine enunciation is sitting in her office, planning her next move. Less than half a mile away, on the the Mayfair side of the street, a thin, slight man with a quicksilver mind is mentally rubbing his hands in delight at the success of his latest salvo.

Newspaper circulation wars be damned: the battle of the society glossies is getting nastier by the month. And Tatler's Chelsea babe with the slimline Prada clutchbag has just scored two blows against Harpers and Queen's Home Counties matriarch with her Christian Dior handbag.

A recent postcard sent by Tatler to its various high-profile advertisers boasting that it had overtaken Harpers in sales prompted a draft letter from the fearsome libel lawyer Peter Carter-Ruck, acting on behalf of Harpers' publishers, National Magazines, suggesting that they retract or clarify the claim. Harpers was still ahead in overall sales, by some 4,000 copies monthly: it was just that Tatler had edged ahead on copies sold on the news stands, rather than by subscription.

Condé Nast, the publishers of Tatler, backed down, but last week treated their rivals to another unpleasant breakfast. The Duchess of York, in an interview with Geordie Greig, Tatler's editor, had left open the possibility of remarrying Prince Andrew. The "Fergie and Andrew may remarry" story, together with Tatler's cover and pictures, was splashed all over the tabloids, most of the broadsheets and numerous news bulletins.

Greig, who took over as editor from the beleaguered Jane Procter last summer, was delighted to have stolen on to the traditional ground of Harpers, which has long had a role as the in-house journal of royalty and aristocracy. Sitting in his office overlooking Hanover Square, fielding calls from newspaper executives wanting to know more about the Fergie story, he is almost glowing with delight at his scoop. "I've spoken to Prince Andrew and he's absolutely thrilled with the Tatler piece," he says. "And there's a whole series of scoopworthy stories which will emerge over the next few months."

He denies his aristocratic connections helped him get the interview: "I got talking to Prince Andrew at an NSPCC ball in March. I didn't know him at all before, though we were at prep schools next to each other and I caught him out at cricket when I was nine. I think he trusted Tatler, because there is no hidden agenda or surprises."

The publicity has capped what have been a good six months for the new editor. Tatler has run exclusive interviews with Jerry Hall (on her divorce from Mick Jagger), Madonna (on motherhood) and now the royals. The magazine's redesign has made it look more modern, and it has regained some of the archness for which Tina Brown made it famous in the 1980s.

"When you look at the magazine, there's such a difference from last summer," Greig says, leafing through the latest issue. It has now got a sense that we don't have to be a stereotype of what people think Tatler is. We are a society magazine, but society these days is broad. Society is everybody from internet entrepreneurs to antiquarian booksellers: society is changing, and Tatler is reflecting that dynamic shift towards a wider, more democratic audience.

News-stand sales have risen 17.7 per cent during his tenure, and Harpers' news-stand sales have gone down by 16.2 per cent. "When I look at Harpers I just don't feel like picking it up and reading it," he says. "The common complaint of women I talk to who read it is that it feels windy, that there's nothing to hold on to. In contrast Tatler is urbane, contemporary and very lively."

Of the postcard to the advertisers, he says, "We wanted to celebrate the figures and we thought we should have let our advertisers know, and it was done in a way which was fairly arresting and made a point. (The card depicted a newsagent's shelves full of unsold copies of Harpers, their spines bearing the words "For Frock's Sake, Buy Me!"). I think sense of humour isn't Harpers' greatest suit. I mean getting Carter-Ruck to send a draft letter is overreacting hugely. They should have laughed and come back fighting."

In National Magazines' HQ in Soho, Fiona Macpherson, Harpers' editor, isn't laughing, but if she's fuming under her skin she's not showing it. "It's all coming from Nicholas Coleridge (Condé Nast's managing director)," she says. "You know he used to be the editor here. He has a complete obsession with us. If you opened him up you'd find Harpers written on his heart, not Tatler. And he really is quite desperate. He's very competitive, as you can imagine, and it must have driven him crazy for the last six or seven years that we were so far ahead of him.

"Still, he very much oversees Tatler now. Some people would say he could turn his attention to other magazines in the group," she adds, pointedly. So was she upset by the note, or the circulation figures? "I just threw it in the wastepaper basket. And Harpers is run as a business, and I don't think our advertisers care that much if they're ahead or we are; they care about the quality of the editorial." Sources at National Magazines say it was Terry Mansfield, the managing director and Coleridge's old boss, who was most riled by the card.

There couldn't be a greater contrast between the two editors. Greig, restless, energetic and dressed in a tieless blue shirt, still looks every inch the newspaper journalist he was before. Macpherson, immaculately coutured and composed, has the fashion magazine editor's natural sang-froid.

She professes to be unworried about the sales figures. "Geordie Greig has come from newspapers, he knows nothing about magazines," she proclaims. "And I'm surprised there is so much excitement (about the royal interview). She (the Duchess of York) asked to be on our cover during the last couple of years, but I didn't think our readers would be terribly interested in her," she says icily. "I've worked hard to make it less of a royalty read and to shed the dowager image."

Macpherson says she doesn't think Harpers readers make a conscious choice between Tatler and her magazine. "Tatler is much more urban, concentrating on what's happening in SW3. There are so many other demands on people's time. I think mobile phones are as much of a threat. People used to buy magazines to read on trains. Now they sit there chatting on their mobiles."

Despite the latest skirmishing, Macpherson says she has one major commercial advantage over her rival. "Our typical reader is a 41-year-old corporate wife who can actually afford to go out and buy the things advertised in the magazine, not an aspirational London blonde," she says. The handbag war is set to turn even cattier.