If circulation is low, have a row. Just ask Cristina and Peter how

When the New Statesman's deputy editor quit last week, it was a chance for the magazine to get some valuable publicity, writes Brian Cathcart

So Cristina Odone's resignation as deputy editor of the New Statesman is absolutely not the result of a row with her editor, Peter Wilby; indeed any such suggestion is dismissed by both as "rubbish" and "nonsense". They bravely admit they had rows over the years, but insist that the plain truth is that Odone wants to spend more time with her baby and has found a cushier job in television.

So Cristina Odone's resignation as deputy editor of the New Statesman is absolutely not the result of a row with her editor, Peter Wilby; indeed any such suggestion is dismissed by both as "rubbish" and "nonsense". They bravely admit they had rows over the years, but insist that the plain truth is that Odone wants to spend more time with her baby and has found a cushier job in television.

Reported in several papers, this titbit prompted a number of thoughts, of which one was that it is odd to encounter the passionate denial (there was no row) before you are aware of the original proposition (there was a row), and another was that for many who read it the surprise was probably that the Statesman still exists. These two may not be unrelated.

Like the struggling girl band singer who declares with apparent indignation that she never, ever slept with Robbie Williams when all she wants is to get into the gossip columns and remind her public she's alive, so Wilby and Odone are protesting more than is necessary that their parting is not bitter. Wilby even wrote a short leader about it last week.

Old lefties may cringe, but the survival of the New Statesman into the 21st century owes at least something to a stomach for publicity. In a vulgar age when news stands are crowded as never before, radical ideas, hard politics and good writing are not enough to sell magazines.

Wilby, a distinguished journalist and a serious if not a solemn man (as well as one for whom the term "snaggle-toothed" might have been coined), may be no PT Barnum, nor even an Ian Hislop or a Boris Johnson, but one of the tricks by which he keeps the Statesman going is getting it talked about as much as he can. (Let me declare an interest: I occasionally write for the Statesman and was once Wilby's deputy - on this paper, no less, back in its Jurassic period.)

Getting talked about doesn't just mean items in the gossip columns, although Wilby's own survival and the alleged manoeuvrings of his political editor, John Kampfner, have become something of a soap opera. The covers can be brash, too.

Last week's, for example, showed Tony Blair in the moustache and Red Army cap of a wartime Stalin, beside the headline: "Dictator of Downing Street". It seemed to strain for effect and it achieved that rare thing - unfairness to Blair - but Wilby knows that meek covers do not sell, and he does not mind sticking his neck out.

Then there are the bylines. Rosie Millard, Amanda Platell, Michael Portillo, Charlie Whelan and Mark Kermode, while not exactly A-list on Oscar night (nor always in step with the march of socialism), do lend the pages a little razzle.

For all this - not to mention the letters page sponsored by a winebar chain and the special supplements backed by Nirex and the National Lottery - the New Statesman remains sufficiently serious, left-wing and troublesome to be resented at 10 Downing Street, without having embraced the Lib Dems or, for that matter, the Tories.

Kingsley Martin, the great editor of the 1940s and 1950s, need not turn in his grave, and nor should the founders, who included Sidney and Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw.

The current proprietor, and the moneybags who rescued the magazine from ruin a decade ago, is, of course, Geoffrey Robinson MP, a certified Friend of Gordon's, and few would dispute that the broad thrust of the opinionating now serves the interests of the Chancellor.

But there is nothing slavish about it. Blair gets the odd pat on the back, Brown can hardly find much pleasure in the weekly harangues of John Pilger, and Nick Cohen is not a writer likely to please any minister this side of Utopia.

And, mirabile dictu, the thing makes a profit. It's not much, and Robinson is a long way from seeing a return on his investment, but on a sale of about 25,000, the magazine is covering its bills and beginning to pay off its debts. According to Wilby, it is "in sounder health than it has been for something like 40 years".

That's quite a feat in the small world of left-of-centre periodicals, a world otherwise populated by the likes of Red Pepper, Prospect and Tribune (none of which enjoys the backing of a millionaire MP). We tend to think of the radical press as dynamic, a national undercurrent of agitprop, with a tradition stretching back beyond John Wilkes, but Wilby thinks those days are gone. "It's all about distribution now. You can't rely on selling copies on the streets or at rallies; you have to get to the customers through shops, and they are controlled by national chains. There's no way for a small, left-wing publication to break into that. They would need capital, and unfortunately capital tends to be owned by capitalists."

It is true that the extraord- inary growth in the size of national papers, the sheer number of words they print, must be squeezing the market. Even if you don't view The Independent, for example, as an explicitly or wholeheartedly left-wing newspaper, you would find as much serious left-of-centre opinion in its pages as any dedicated magazine would be likely to carry.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that the Statesman carries on. But let's keep it in proportion: those 25,000 copies leave the magazine level with Prospect, but some way behind the Spectator (65,000) and Private Eye (200,000). In other sectors, the New Scientist sells 90,000 copies in this country and 150,000 worldwide, while 1.1 million people still buy the Radio Times every week.

The Statesman is a niche product and the niche is a small one. Commentators write that it punches above its weight, that it has influence disproportionate to its circulation, but it is worth remembering that those commentators usually spend much of their time in the same niche.

It used to be said - a long time ago now, I'm happy to say - that no one ever went into left-wing politics to meet pretty women. Something similar applies today, in the sense that the politics of the Statesman are not in any way glamorous, so they will never capture a big readership. But I like to read them, and even when I don't, I like to know they are there. And if part of the price for that is that I must occasionally tolerate flammed-up stories in the papers about the doings of Cristina Odone, John Kampfner and Peter Wilby, then so be it.

WHAT'S LEFT OF THE LEFT-WING PRESS

New Statesman
Editor: Peter Wilby
Owner: Geoffrey Robinson
Circulation:25,000; weekly
History:Founded in 1913 by pioneering socialist husband-and-wife team of Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Editors in its post-war heyday included Kingsley Martin, Anthony Howard, Hugh Stephenson, and Paul Johnson before onset of Thatcherism heralded a decline. Nearly folded in the 1980s, but reputation restored in last decade even as it has yielded ground to The Spectator.
Stance: More Brownite than Blairite, it likes to provoke - notably in its anti-US post-9/11 coverage

Prospect
Editor: David Goodhart
Owner: 80 shareholders
Circulation:25,000; monthly. History: By no means explicitly left-wing, Prospect earns its spurs simply by the breadth of its thinking. Launched in 1995 with the aim of being more readable than The Economist, more relevant than The Spectator, more romantic than the New Statesman. Commands respect in political and literary circles.
Stance: In its own words, it stands for good writing about the things that matter. Takes politics and politicians seriously, causing a stir earlier this year when debating questions of national identity

New Left Review
Editor: Susan Watkins
Owner: New Left Review Ltd
Circulation:8,500; bi-monthly
History:founded in 1960 from merger between The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review. Revamped and relaunched four years ago.
Stance: caters for world audience with analysis of global economy and anti-capitalist resistance to it; discusses world literature, cinema and the avant-garde. Opposes US imperialism and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Defiant support for Middle East resistance movements

Red Pepper
Editor: Hilary Wainwright
Owner: Red Pepper Ltd
Circulation:7,000; monthly
History:traces its roots to 1984 when a group of left-wingers formed the First Socialist Conference. In 1987 they established The Socialist, precursor to Red Pepper. Guests at recent 10th anniversary party included Tony Benn, Harold Pinter and human-rights solicitor Louise Christian.
Stance:Aims to give voice to independent-minded left and green groups. Look of mag evokes 1970s agit-prop era

London Review of Books
Editor: Mary-Kay Wilmers
Owner: shareholders under LRB Ltd
Circulation:42,000; fortnightly
History:although much more literary than political, the mere height of its brow is a challenge to the status quo. Emerged from the mess of the year-long closure of The Times and Sunday Times in 1979, starting off as an adjunct to The New York Review of Books.
Stance:intelligent, free-thinking, it outraged US readers with reaction to 9/11

Tribune
Editor: Chris McLaughlin, previously political editor of the Sunday Mirror, has just taken over from Mark Seddon
Owners: trade unions; shareholders that own it in a trust; one major backer
Circulation:5,000 weekly
History:Founded in the 1930s
Stance:Historic voice of the Labour movement has had difficulty reconciling itself to the Blair-era reinvention of the party. Based in Aslef's north London headquarters, it aims to return Labour to its socialist democratic roots

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