Labour of love
Mark Seddon, outgoing editor of Tribune, reflects on spin, lawsuits, bursting Blair's bubble and a bizarre encounter with Sir James Goldsmith
Tuesday 01 June 2004
Well, that's it. Almost time to exit stage left. Just over a decade after slipping into the editorial chair once occupied by, among others, George Orwell, Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot and Chris Mullin, I am soon to depart as editor of
Tribune. I say "the chair", but perhaps I shouldn't be quite so literal: we have sold at least two staplers that "belonged to George Orwell", and gave another to Alastair Campbell because we couldn't afford to sponsor him when he ran the London Marathon for charity. I hope it went for a fortune but still I feel some guilt - assuaged, I guess, by the knowledge that Campbell kept
Tribune, the house journal of the Labour Left, going in difficult times, indirectly, and directly as a former columnist.
Well, that's it. Almost time to exit stage left. Just over a decade after slipping into the editorial chair once occupied by, among others, George Orwell, Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot and Chris Mullin, I am soon to depart as editor of Tribune. I say "the chair", but perhaps I shouldn't be quite so literal: we have sold at least two staplers that "belonged to George Orwell", and gave another to Alastair Campbell because we couldn't afford to sponsor him when he ran the London Marathon for charity. I hope it went for a fortune but still I feel some guilt - assuaged, I guess, by the knowledge that Campbell kept Tribune, the house journal of the Labour Left, going in difficult times, indirectly, and directly as a former columnist.
"Alastair Campbell in Tribune!" I almost hear a collective sigh of disbelief. But long ago, when Tony Blair was but a rising star in the Labour firmament, he told me over tea in his Islington home: "We don't want to change Tribune, all we want is to have our say in it." I have kept my side of that bargain, the only one I have made with a politician. Sadly, the earlier goodwill soon gave way to my first bitter experience of being completely strung along by Blair's lieutenants. "Will Tribune be supporting Tony for leader?", I remember Anji Hunter cooing down the phone. "Well," said I, "much as I like Tony, this is a left-wing newspaper. In any event I hear that Peter Mandelson is helping his campaign, so no we won't."
This brought a sharp denial, and 15 minutes later a phone call from a soon-to-be minister. "If you report that Mandelson is helping Tony, we will sue." With such a ringing denial backed up by a very big stick, I crumbled. To my shame, I wielded the blue pencil. I should have known better - most of the parliamentary lobby was in on the secret and, such was the near-universal acclaim for Tony, they all kept it under wraps until Blair famously thanked "Bobby" Mandelson after he had won.
It isn't just New Labour that has gone for us. "I was going to sue you," said Cecil Parkinson on one occasion, "until I discovered you didn't have any money!" Others - and there have been many - have not been so gracious. Take the late Sir James Goldsmith for instance. Outraged over a column that referred to him and alluded to the Blackshirts, Goldsmith got Peter Carter-Ruck on our case. Again, on discovering we had no money, Goldsmith backtracked. "Sir James wishes you to read his book, The Trap [it duly arrived by courier]. When you have read it, he wants you to interview him." I was met by a frock-coated butler at his Kensington home, where the old rascal was reclining like Blofeld on a white sofa.
We revived the Mirror's legendary Cassandra column, and when a "senior Labour MP" predicted that Blair could be toppled before the election, Newsnight signed up a handwriting expert. They got close, but not close enough. Poor Michael Foot - who has supported Tribune through thick and thin, even handing over some of his libel winnings from Rupert Murdoch to keep the magazine going - made a comment that Cassandra might have gone for a target too close to home. Peter Hain, then the chairman of Tribune, was hauled up in front of Tony and given a ticking off.
It seemed sensible at that point to sign up a Tory Cassandra. We did just that and it wasn't long before Kenneth Clarke was being read an excerpt from the column live on Jimmy Young's radio show. Clarke promptly exploded on air.
Tribune has been great fun. I made some unlikely friendships, most notably with the late - and very bored - Lord Rothermere. He assured me in a letter that: "Bubbles did not procure Pamela Bordes for Andrew Neil, since Andrew is quite capable of securing the services of his own tarts." Lord Rothermere and I shared a similar interest in Tibet and I would sometimes be ushered, through the tradesman's entrance of course, to his suite where we would talk of Buddhism and sailing in the Bay of Biscay.
For 65 years Tribune has kept the scarlet standard flying high. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the Tribune Group of Labour MPs. I was there on the night that Gordon Brown successfully engineered the Group's take-over. Peter Hain and Roger Berry had published a Tribune pamphlet that didn't quite offer the 100 per cent endorsement that was in future to be required of everyone in New Labour, including Peter Hain. The duo were duly defenestrated.
In a metaphor for the Labour Party, the Tribune Group became the New Tribune Group, and after that a virtual reality group which boasted "supporters, not members". At least Gordon wouldn't be able to nobble it.
Yet Gordon Brown has stood by Tribune while others have sought to bring it down by persuading the unions not to advertise in it. A frequent speaker at the famous Tribune rallies during Labour Conferences, I once recall the Chancellor in full flow. Suddenly the applause became deafening. Brown raised a quizzical eye, and then slowly, deliberately, a beautifully dressed elfin lady walked towards the rostrum. The Red Baroness, Barbara Castle, the only Labour figure to give Brown a run for his money over her beloved SERPs, had picked her moment. It was wondrous to behold.
Well, we were first. First to turn a critical eye towards Tony Blair and his vacuous "Third Way", first to take on the spinners and truth doctors. First to campaign for devolution and then to ask why Londoners couldn't choose Livingstone, or the Welsh, Rhodri Morgan. We savaged New Labour's control freakery and predicted that the party's adherence to an old Communist dictum of "democratic centralism" would kill its grass roots. It nearly has. Oh, and don't mention the bloody war!
Tribune has stayed the course and now has a chance to thrive again as Labour's tectonic plates begin to shift. It has had an infusion of trade union investment and has defied all predictions of closure. I will continue for a time as the magazine's Political Editor, because Tribune - like The Independent - has a purpose and a core set of beliefs. In an increasingly monochrome, market-driven media world, tolerance, truth and humanity count for so much more.
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