Guest editors: No time for monkey business

Today, the rock star Bono is guest-editing tomorrow's 'Independent'. It's no publicity stunt - although such projects haven't always gone smoothly. By Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

In between being the best-known rock star on the planet, planning the next stage of U2's global tour Vertigo, and bringing the plight of Africa to the attention of the rest of the human race, Bono will arrive "bright and early" this morning to edit tomorrow's edition of this newspaper.

Days ahead of chairing editorial conference, the U2 front-man had already begun commissioning pieces and reading copy, signalling how seriously he was taking the role.

To put a rock star at the helm of a national newspaper might seem eccentric, but it is becoming an increasingly used tactic as publications seek to use key individuals to raise their profiles and emphasise their brand values.

So, with an enthusiasm bordering on abandon, editors are handing over their hard-won seats to novelists, footballers, artists and minor royalty.

Some guests engage with the project more than others. Staff at Time Out magazine were surprised to see last year's guest editor Nick Hornby get so hands-on that he was sub-editing the picture captions. Then again, Hornby used to sub on the magazine's music desk.

The Time Out editor Gordon Thomson says: "This was like Nick Hornby coming home. We didn't pick just anyone."

Hornby rejected the suggestion of profiling Bruce Springsteen in favour of personally interviewing the then relatively unknown band The Magic Numbers. Rather than penning a brief editor's introduction, he wrote an 800-word piece explaining his links with the magazine. Thomson says: "He was totally hands-on. You could see that if Fever Pitch had not worked he would have fitted in perfectly here. He is really enthusiastic about London and loves his music and his books."

The GMTV presenter Lorraine Kelly was an enthusiastic guest editor of the special edition Woman's Own Real Lives in November 2003. She edited over cups of coffee at a series of meetings with the Woman's Own editor Caroline Reid, who says: "Lorraine is a journalist, but I was pleasantly surprised at how involved she was. We talked about the format and drew up a flat plan. She was keen to do a lot of the interviewing herself. The magazine very much had her personality in it."

Giving a senior journalistic role to someone with no experience can bring stress as well as joy. When The Guardian gave artist Tracey Emin the guest editorship of its Weekend section in 2002, she threw herself into the project, even persuading her father to pose as the model in the fashion shoot. Articles were commissioned on human rights in China and abortion, subjects that chimed with Emin's work, and Let's Move To... featured the artist's home town of Margate.

"Tracey originated all the ideas and provided the artwork," says Kath Viner, then editing Weekend and now the G2 editor. "I ended up thinking of the magazine as a Tracey Emin artwork, it was so totally her."

But when, on the day the magazine was due to go to print, Viner tried to contact Emin to show her the final pages, the artist was incommunicado. "I was standing outside her house in Spitalfields. It was 3pm and the pages were going at 6pm and I was calling her office, home and mobile," Viner remembers. "Finally she pulled up a sash window and was standing there in her bathrobe saying, 'Katherine, come on in!'"

The same paper faced a dilemma in 2003 when it allowed a series of artists to design G2 covers. Gillian Wearing came up with a graffiti-style scrawl saying "Fuck Cilla Black" (illustrating a piece about the Liverpool presenter being too nice for the TV industry). The decision to run with it caused much hand-wringing among staff and readers. Since then, The Guardian has repeated the experiment, allowing the Glasgow band Franz Ferdinand to edit G2 for a day, actor Kevin Spacey to oversee the Friday Review and artist Sam Taylor-Wood to run the Tuesday arts section.

Lads' mags have seen the stunt value of hiring a guest editor. Phil Hilton, editor of Nuts, allowed the glamour model Abi Titmuss to come into the office and tie him up with tape. She edited the Don't Look feature, where readers describe how they have incurred injuries to various parts of their anatomy. "She was training to be a doctor so she knew all the Latin terms," Hilton says.

Next month, Loaded will go a step further and give a guest editorship to an electronic chimp. Regional newspapers have been known to offer readers the chance to take command. And guest editors have emerged in broadcasting, most notably at Radio 4's Today programme, which for three years has given over the final week of the year to people from business, politics and the arts, and even to the Duchess of York, who took the chance to raise the profile of motor neurone disease.

For The Independent, Bono, like a previous guest editor, Anita Roddick, is seen as a good fit for the paper's stance on humanitarian and environmental issues. In return, the newspaper will donate half its revenues on the day to RED, launched to raise money to finance Aids relief projects in Africa.

Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief, of The Independent, says the project is not a publicity stunt. "He's going to be doing a full day's work and will be in bright and early on Monday morning.

"What's great about it is that Bono's interests coincide with a lot of the interests of the newspaper. He's an Independent reader when he can and he knows what the paper stands for, so his day of editing is not going to come as a great shock to the readers because it will be in sympathy with the editorial ethos of the paper."