Dominic Lawson: Writing against the grain

Dominic Lawson spent five years at 'The Spectator' and almost 10 as editor of 'The Sunday Telegraph' before leaving last year. This week he starts a new column for this newspaper, reports Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

By the time Dominic Lawson returned to his Sussex home from taking his computer to be fixed last Friday afternoon, he was already in possession of the latest newspaper circulation figures released but a few hours earlier by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Seven months after a furious Lawson was frogmarched out of One Canada Square, the former long-standing editor of The Sunday Telegraph still keeps fully abreast of unfolding developments in the newspaper market.

Obviously, it hasn't escaped his attention that his former newspaper is not faring particularly well under his successor, Sarah Sands, despite an ambitious re-launch at the start of November. UK Newstrade circulation (excluding bulk and foreign sales) is down by almost 50,000 copies from the same time last year, when Lawson was editor.

Lawson, who from tomorrow begins a twice-weekly column for The Independent, having also signed up to write pieces for the Mail on Sunday, thinks well of Sands and chooses not to gloat. Indeed, under an arrangement in his severance package with the Telegraph Group he is forbidden from speaking about his former job, which he held for 10 years.

So he selects his words with care. "Everybody has to edit the newspaper in the way that he or she feels right and is natural to that person. The only way to edit a newspaper is to be true to yourself and everybody has a different approach," he says, diplomatically. "What you've just got to hope is that it gels with the readers."

He says he is pleased that The Sunday Telegraph, which was redesigned with a fanfare of publicity and DVD giveaways, is receiving greater investment "because historically it hadn't under various owners".

And then, the circulation figures in front of him, Lawson pointedly adds: "In the end the acid test is going to be the circulation figures and particularly the circulation figures once you have stripped out the DVD flim flams and the bulks. That is the judge and jury. When is the verdict given? It's hard to say but it's very transparent, our business. It's very competitive and everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing. The truth emerges quite rapidly."

Lawson, 49, has worked as a columnist before, on the Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Correspondent, and a succession of offers came in after he was dismissed last year. The Independent's was the "most interesting suggestion", he says. "I am intrigued by the idea of writing for a completely different readership. Having spent five years editing The Spectator and almost 10 at The Sunday Telegraph, I'm used to an intelligent readership, which The Independent certainly has, but it's obviously one with - by and large - a different political perspective. So one is writing somewhat against the grain."

When Lawson was editing The Spectator in the early 1990s, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, offered him a chance to write for that newspaper. "At that point I decided I wanted to edit The Spectator and that if I stayed there I would succeed, so this is a second opportunity that is too good to miss," says Lawson.

He believes he has been hired by The Independent because of his grasp on Conservative politics and the renewed interest in the party following the election of David Cameron. "I suspect that Simon Kelner (The Independent's editor-in-chief) wanted someone who had some understanding of that through a mixture of upbringing and professional acquaintance."

He also thinks that Kelner likes the idea of a columnist writing against the grain. "The idea of something called The Independent is that it is independent of everything and is not aligned somewhat religiously to the left as The Guardian has. Indeed many of the policy suggestions put forward by The Independent in its leaders are not at all left-wing doctrinaires, they are quite radical and could be usefully investigated by the Conservative Party. So I don't regard it as a bad fit at all."

Cameron's early success he describes as "exciting" but points out that the next election would not be until 2010 and "it is a long haul". Lawson is impressed by the former PR man's understanding of the importance of public image. "He understands that in the field of politics whether you are branded a success or failure happens very quickly. It happened with Blair and of course it happened negatively with Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague. He has succeeded in that first and essential objective but he clearly has a problem in that he has to keep the railings there to stop people falling off."

Having been out of the editor's chair for more than half a year, is there a danger that Lawson no longer has the access to the senior Tories that he once enjoyed? "I don't find it difficult to see people but on the other hand I think it's very important as a columnist to be not too much inside the loop. There's a great danger of being captured by the people you are writing about and of being too friendly," he says. He praises Matthew Parris of The Times for "keeping a fearless independence" in his writing.

But Lawson will not be writing just about the Conservative Party - "that would drive everyone bad with boredom". His already strong interest in social and criminal justice issues was heightened by the shock of the murder of his wife's cousin John Monckton in November 2004. The murder in Mr Monckton's Chelsea house happened only a month after Lawson had launched a Sunday Telegraph campaign to increase the right of homeowners to protect themselves.

Last month Lawson wrote about the case and his attempts to learn from senior police officers about the dangers posed by killers released on licence in his first piece for the Mail on Sunday, for whom his writing will take the form more of reportage. "I think criminal policy has, to much too much of an extent, been built around the desire to understand the needs of criminals and not enough the very basic needs of people to walk out at nights without any sense of fear," he says. "The odds of being convicted of a crime with physical violence and of receiving a prison sentence which you then serve are so long that if you assume that habitual criminals are creatures of reason as well as impulse then it looks like a good business to be in. That requires a huge change, frankly."

Lawson expects his views to provoke "an interesting debate with the reader". He says: "Clearly a lot of people in the probation service or who are on the Parole Board read The Independent. I would hope to get some sort of dialogue going."

The son of Lord Lawson of Blaby, a former chancellor, he could have followed offers to go into the world of business but stuck by a decision he had made when similar approaches were made to him when he was writing the Lex column for the FT earlier in his career. "I feel that I wouldn't make a difference if I went into the world of business whereas the joy of journalism, whether you are a columnist or an editor, is that there is some visible sense in which you can make a difference. It sounds terribly pious but you can make the world a better place or a more self-aware place," he says. "I would be terribly loath to say goodbye to all that. I love our trade and would have hated to have left it."