John Micklethwait: Great minds like a think

For more than 160 years, 'The Economist' has been creating an intelligent debate while making sense of British and US politics. Not only that, but it has also been bucking the downward trend for print media. Ian Burrell meets its 16th editor

In the early days of the age of steam, even before Isambard Kingdom Brunel began drafting his plans for Paddington station, the fast-spreading fever of train travel came close to destroying what has gone on to become one of Britain's greatest media brands.

It was 1845, and a young publication founded two years earlier to oppose the Corn Laws was retitled with a verbosity that would make its modern editors wince: The Economist, Weekly Commercial Times, Bankers' Gazette and Railway Monitor.

When, some 87 years later, the title finally switched back to the original simple name of The Economist, circulation stood at less than 20,000. Today it stands at 1,138,118 - 87 per cent more than a decade ago. Figures to be released next month will show further gains. Who said there was no future in print media?

Two months ago at the Society of Editors conference in Glasgow, the former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil described the London-based publication as "the most successful magazine global brand in the world on and off the web". Last month the advertising trade title Campaign named The Economist as Medium of the Year.

Edited from offices tucked away in St James's, between Pall Mall's private clubs and Jermyn Street's statue of regency dandy Beau Brummell, it is considered more influential in Washington DC than Time and Business Week. Readership of The Economist in the United States is at 543,778, more than three times the sale in its home market.

John Micklethwait, 44, is the 16th editor of this journalistic institution. His 15 predecessors - an illustrious crew that includes former ITN newsreader Sir Alastair Burnet, former Bank of England deputy governor Rupert Pennant-Rea and the 19th-century pioneer Walter Bagehot, whose legacy is preserved by a weekly column in his name - remained in post for an average of 11 years. Micklethwait (Ampleforth and Magdalen College, Oxford) grew up in Rutland, a blood relative of the Duke of Norfolk. He is tall and straight-backed with a thick mop of hair, a clipped English accent and a desk that looks out across the royal parks.

Nonetheless, in the United States he is a highly regarded analyst of American affairs, a chronicler of the emergence of the vast conservative coalition and the grasp it has taken on the social values and political landscape of the world's greatest superpower.

Four months before the 2004 US presidential election, with commentators on both sides of the Atlantic predicting a curtailment of the rightward march of the neocons, Micklethwait stood up before a liberal audience in New York City and rejected the notion. "America is simply different from the rest of the developed world. It takes a more conservative stand on issues because in general it embraces more conservative values." He then reeled off a batch of statistics emphasising the divide between Britain and America, noting, for example, that a majority of Americans believe in the devil (compared to one in six in Britain).

When George W Bush was re-elected, Micklethwait and his Economist colleague Adrian Wooldridge (with whom he had travelled America to compile the book The Right Nation: How Conservatism Won) were suddenly in great demand as political oracles. In March last year, Micklethwait was promoted from US editor to editor-in-chief, and his first months at the helm have coincided with the first deployment in America of AMV's iconic white-on-red Economist advertising and promotion of the magazine in Baltimore, Denver and Austin. Latest figures show that the North American sales are up by 15 per cent year on year.

In spite of this, Micklethwait denies that The Economist (which is known as a "newspaper", though it is a glossy magazine) is pitched at an American readership. "I suppose we are more conscious of American vulnerabilities than some other British papers are," he says. "We tend not to look down on Americans for being Americans. I remember when I first came here somebody said we never called Jimmy Carter a peanut farmer. We were quite tough on [George W] Bush but we would never use the word Texan as an insult any more than we would use the word Birmingham as an insult. We don't take an American viewpoint; we take a global viewpoint. I think we can be accused of not taking a British viewpoint, I will happily admit to that."

He believes that other British-based publications failed to understand the depth of the American right. "If you'd read a lot of British papers during the first Bush presidency you would have assumed he had no supporters at all and that he only got in due to some cheating in Florida, which is transparently ridiculous. Suddenly he wins second time round and every British paper seems to be filled with pictures of religious and conservative Americans; it was like they suddenly noticed that there was this world somewhere between the coasts. [But] that's not a particularly British problem, it goes to other places, including bits of the American media as well."

Not that The Economist doesn't have its own problems in America. Though the uninitiated may regard it as an unremittingly pro-business, right-of-centre publication - it was an admirer of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and backed both the Vietnam and Iraq wars - it is deeply proud of its classical liberal tradition, which Micklethwait insists is the very "core" of the title's philosophy. Whenever there is dissent within the office as to how The Economist should approach an issue, the argument always comes round to the question "What would be the liberal approach to it?", says the editor.

"If you go back and look at the beginnings of The Economist, it fought against slavery, fought against capital punishment, fought for penal reform; it's always had quite a strong socially liberal side. From that perspective it's not that odd that we were among the first people to promote gay marriage, among the first people to campaign against Guantanamo. Those traditions still continue."

The problem with this is that, in large parts of America at least, the L-word is a term of abuse. "Yes, we do actually have difficulties with that. You only have to look at the idiocy of the phrase 'big government liberal', in the way that a classical liberal would look at that phrase, to realise that the use of the word 'liberal' in America is extremely odd," says Micklethwait. "The irony of The Economist message and the kind of liberalism we stand for is that on the one hand it has never been more successful; you could argue that economic liberalisation has spread and that social liberalisation - with one or two obvious problems like the Taliban and Iran or the religious right in America - has also spread. But if you look round the world it is very difficult to name any party which stands for the same things that we do."

As a general rule, The Economist backs the Republicans on economic issues and Democrats on social ones, he says. "So if you carry a copy of The Economist in America you are not identified as being on either side of the divide."

Micklethwait makes it on to a website called william1.co.uk, which lists all the descendants of William the Conqueror. His wife, Fevronia, who is half-Lebanese, is described by the London Evening Standard as an "elegant society queen". He practises pilates and shares a teacher with the Confederation of British Industry director general and former Financial Times editor Richard Lambert. When he was still US editor he was touted as a possible editor of The Spectator, though the top job at The Economist is a bigger prize. His status as a writer in America gives him a certain public profile, which is a little at odds with a publication where editors' names never appear until they come to write their farewell letter to readers.

Micklethwait intends to keep that low-profile tradition and says his writing with Wooldridge (they also produced a paean to business entitled The Company - a Short History of a Revolutionary Idea) has been "analytical rather than crusading".

"In terms of personality, I think the job of being an editor of The Economist - even though I'm doing an interview with you - is not to be in the public face the entire time. It's a question of the brand being stronger than the individual," he says. "The message that The Economist stands for goes on from editor to editor. A cult of personality would be dangerous, I think."

The Economist famously extends this cult of anonymity to denying bylines to journalists, unless they be famous guests such as David Cameron, Angela Merkel and new Republican champion John McCain, who all contributed to its "The World in 2007" special edition.

In a muddled modern media environment, most news organisations are busy building the brands of their writers to catch the attention of capricious consumers. This presents a conundrum for the faceless Economist, particularly online, where it is trying to increase its presence.

"You've hit an absolutely core issue for us," says the editor. "We do have two blogs up already and I insisted on anonymity on the basis that I thought that people wanted to have a conversation with The Economist rather than individual people. There was a thin end of the wedge argument. Some people thought we should have gone to having people's names but I thought it was the wrong thing to give away [our tradition] so easily.

"I thought the anonymity was something relatively precious and worth hanging on to, partly as a brand. We are virtually the last people who do this, with the possible exception of Private Eye. It's not just a branding issue. The Economist is a kind of communal organisation in an odd way. People will file stories which sometimes we will change but we couldn't change something if that guy's name or woman's name appeared on it."

Contributors to The Economist cannot be precious about their copy. More than most publications it depends on tight editing to give it a clear and distinct voice. When the Scottish hatmaker James Wilson launched it in 1843 he drew up 13 written rules, the first of which was that "free-trade principles will be most rigidly applied to all the important questions of the day". It is unashamedly opinionated and when Rupert Pennant-Rea (editor from 1986 to 1993) described it as a "Friday viewspaper" he was perhaps ahead of his time in recognising the public appetite for such a forthright product.

Micklethwait says that in a digital world, print publications cannot survive by simply reporting the news. "You've got to have value added. I think the same is true of newspapers and The Independent is a good example of that; you've chosen to add something more than just the news. People are swamped by a plethora of information, and that increases the need for a filter - some element of what we do is to say out of all the things that happened this week these are the things that you really should know about. Merely summing up what has happened is not that useful."

Micklethwait came to journalism from the City, having accepted a milk-round offer at Oxford to join Chase Manhattan bank. That job lasted two years. "I was not a terribly successful banker," he says. "But I think [City experience] means you understand some element of what business is about. For the past eight years I've written mainly about America but before that I wrote mostly about business and finance. Coverage of business and finance is the engine room of The Economist. That's what drives us along. You can't feign interest in it; you are either interested or you're not."

That does not mean the title is uncritical of business, despite the suspicions of those environmentalists who were angered by a recent cover story questioning the value of organic foods. The magazine went to war with Silvio Berlusconi, who denounced it as "The Ecommunist".

"The Economist is often seen as pro-business - we'd rather be seen as pro-capitalism. We don't treat business people with the same slavish idolatry that some do; we don't put pictures of them on the cover playing golf. On the other hand, we definitely do not look down on business and see it as somehow reprehensible."

Unlike other sections of the press, he did not see "anything wrong per se" with average salaries of £600,000 at Goldman Sachs. Both The Economist and John Micklethwait are champions of globalisation. The editor-in-chief, a history graduate, questions whether large businesses really are more powerful than ever, noting that the East India Company had an army of 200,000. He and his publication are scornful of the notion that companies should be obliged to put something back through corporate social responsibility (CSR) schemes. "We thought the implication of these things was that companies were somehow making dirty money. That BP's basic business was fiendish and the only way it could make itself better was to treat some people in Colombia slightly better. That still strikes me as fundamentally wrong."

In spite of this, promotion of The Economist in Britain in the coming year will emphasise its coverage of diverse topics from the worlds of arts, science and culture. (Fishing, liquid condoms and country music have been the subjects of recent pieces.)

Micklethwait claims his own credibility as a reader of American political runes has not been damaged by Democrat successes at the recent midterm elections. Those gains, he argues, resulted from "unimaginable incompetence" from the Bush administration and a rightward lurch from the opposition. "If you look at the Democrats who got elected, they were pro-guns; quite a lot were anti-abortion; they were not, by any stretch of the imagination, liberal democrats. One twist, which worries us at The Economist, is that there were quite a lot of protectionists among them. And if you look at Hillary [Clinton]'s speech when she won in New York, I can't remember how many times she mentioned God but it sounded a lot."

Micklethwait detects only "faint glimmers" of a popular right-wing coalition in Britain. "The gulf is still startling - look at John McCain in Bournemouth [at the Conservative party conference]. I suspect he hadn't been surrounded by so many left-of-centre people since he was in a prison cell in Hanoi [where he was captive during the Vietnam war]."

With a smile, Micklethwait returns to editing his new year's edition, which is entitled "Happiness (and how to measure it)".

For The Economist's 16th editor, just 10 months into the job, next month's biannual circulation figures will surely be an acceptable yardstick.

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