Huntin', fishin', goin' nowhere

Rumours of his departure are much exaggerated, says London Evening Standard editor Max Hastings

Ever since Max Hastings was appointed editor of the London
Evening Standard in 1996, commentators have been murmuring how unlikely a candidate he is for the job. If you ignored the fact that he was a highly successful editor of
The Daily Telegraph for the preceding 10 years, his country-squire passions and aversion to London at the weekend did suggest that it was an anomalous choice.

Ever since Max Hastings was appointed editor of the London Evening Standard in 1996, commentators have been murmuring how unlikely a candidate he is for the job. If you ignored the fact that he was a highly successful editor of The Daily Telegraph for the preceding 10 years, his country-squire passions and aversion to London at the weekend did suggest that it was an anomalous choice.

Hastings has survived the death of the two men who appointed him, Lord Rothermere and Sir David English, the former proprietor and editor-in-chief, respectively, of Associated Newsapers. He has edited the Standard through interesting times for London, doing a steady job. It's a more prosaic task than editing The Telegraph, where he could leave the actual journalism to others. "It's very hands-on," he says, with a 6.30am start and "important decisions to be made in 10 minutes rather than over hours".

The paper, Hastings boasts, has greatly improved its turn-around times and offers thorough coverage of issues such as crime and the mayoral contest. Some of his staff make fun of his enthusiasm for "pretty girls with picture bylines" - Mimi Spencer, now editor of ES magazine, famously had more pictures in the paper than the Prime Minister when she was a writer - but if that is true, it hardly makes him unique.

The accusation is also levelled that the Standard doesn't know if it's a local or national paper, with foreign coverage varying wildly. "One of the things you're paid for as an editor is to judge what people want," he says, "and if we decide to cover a foreign story we want to do it as well as all the nationals." Still, Hastings admits there was a "steep learning curve" after he arrived from The Telegraph.

Unlike Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, Hastings is not publicity-shy. He appears often on Question Time, gives interviews and writes his own signed leading articles. Alastair Campbell and others used to barrage him with faxes and phone calls complaining about the paper's coverage. What was the editor's response? "I'd tell then to sod off. I've found myself saying, do remember that I neither hold office under the crown, nor am I at this point soliciting a peerage from Tony Blair, so you can't talk to us as if we're flunkeys." The angry fax tide ebbed after he published one in the paper.

Hastings assures those who have expressed concern about the Associated bid for the left-leaning Daily Express by pointing out that he has never been rebuked by Dacre or Rothermere for his own centrist politics. "They regard it as healthy that the Mail and the Standard take the opposing point of view on a lot of issues." He also says rumours that he plans to retire after the next election are untrue.

An acclaimed military historian, Hastings perches in his chair in his office overlooking roadworks on Kensington High Street and barks out answers. His secretary is even more frightening, and half his staff are scared of him, though everyone who knows him says he is scrupulously fair. You interrupt him at your peril - he simply talks over you until you shut up - though he ought perhaps to come up with some new interview sound-bites as many his quotes are verbatim repeats. He has, to date, shown at least three interviewers a particular Campbell fax asking sarcastically whether Ken Livingstone was writing the Standard's headlines, and commented, "I'm having it framed", although nine months have passed and it remains frameless in his drawer.

Londoners stuck on Tube trains may have noticed advertisements for the Millennium Dome, in which the Evening Standard is quoted extolling its virtues. Is this the same Standard that has spent all year calling for the Dome to be scrapped?

"I complained bitterly about that", he says. "That was from a column by Simon Jenkins [a Millennium Commissioner] and they used it as if it was from the Standard. I rang up Jennie Page [then the Dome supremo] and I said, 'If you ever use that again, I will sue you for your last penny'.She said she wouldn't do it again, but she knew full well what she was doing."

Hastings campaigned for the creation of the mayoral post but he was suspicious of Ken Livingstone politically, so is he surprised at his performance as Mayor so far? "Yes, frankly, I am, though I do keep wondering what happens next. I would say he's behaved pretty responsibly on many issues and if he keeps this up he'll have our support."

A One Nation Tory who says he despairs of the "Little Englander" policies of William Hague,he is also sufficiently content with the Labour government to expect to endorse it at the next election. But his love of shooting and fishing (he took part in last year's Countryside March in London, on one of the few weekends he has ever spent in the capital) can hardly endear him to New Labour. "I've managed to be on not very good terms with three successive prime ministers now, and I'm beginning to think that's the way it should be."

He has mixed feelings about Metro, the apolitical daily freesheet produced on a shoestring budget and defensively launched as a way of stymieing a similar plan from News International. "I don't think any honest editor is happier to have a rival in the field who will make us all work harder", he says. "But I've been very encouraged by the way our circulation has stood up to it."

So far, the Standard's circulation has taken a hit of around 10-15,000 copies but remained steady at 439,000. But Hastings says that complacency would be misplaced. "The whole newspaper industry is going to go through quite a nail-biting time over the next few years, discovering if those who pick up their freesheets as teenagers move on to wanting to pay for newspapers later," he says.

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