Life at All Sins by the man from All Souls
What next after Boris? The Spectator's new editor tells Jane Thynne about his regime in Doughty Street
Sunday 26 March 2006
When Matthew d'Ancona became a fellow of All Souls, he had to endure an exam, two interviews and a gruelling High Table dinner with inquisitorial dons. Becoming editor of The Spectator meant writing a mission statement, two interviews with Andrew Neil and continuing speculation on his suitability. But there's no doubt which he preferred. "Oh, this is the thing I've always wanted to do. Every morning I approach the door with a spring in my step. It's incredibly exciting."
If The Spectator's proprietors had actively sought a contrast with his predecessor, Boris Johnson, they could not have done better than d'Ancona. Both are Oxford-educated and both are David Cameron supporters, but there the resemblance ends.
Like Boris, whose shenanigans and those of his staff brought heaps of lurid publicity for the magazine, d'Ancona also has a particular interest in sin. But in his case it is the concept of sin in the medieval confessional, the subject of his All Souls thesis.
Unlike Boris, he speaks in perfectly sequenced paragraphs, which, after interruptions, he picks up again in mid-stream. He does not display excessive enthusiasm, nor does he drink any more. His "vice" is an encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema, specialist subject Star Wars. And it is hard to imagine the sober-suited d'Ancona featuring full length on the magazine's publicity material.
"Boris had a stellar reign but every editor has a different act. I want to make The Spectator indispensable as a treasure trove of information. Not arid facts, but nuggets of opinions and things you would never have imagined. In our first weeks, we've had Gyles Brandreth revealing what the Queen thought of Diana and Ken Clarke saying 'let's have a coalition with the Lib Dems'. I want people to read the magazine because they think it's indispensable - their weekend is going to be lesser without it."
Unlike other areas of the Barclays' empire, such as The Sunday Telegraph, from which d'Ancona was plucked, no sense of crisis is detectable behind the elegant facade of 56 Doughty Street. Circulation is at a record high - well above 70,000 - thanks to the Boris effect. "The question for me is what do you do with a successful product?" ponders d'Ancona, and his first thought is to redefine its political line. "When Boris became editor, Hague was leader of the Conservative Party and it was like an underground resistance which survived on wit and flamboyance.
"Suddenly, the Tory party is a contender for power and increasingly people will turn to The Spectator to find out what it's all about. But I don't want to be the in-house magazine of the Conservative Party. I want to surf the Cameron wave, not be part of it."
Like Cameron, d'Ancona supported the invasion of Iraq, but in this, as in other issues, there will be no crusading. "Using the magazine to promulgate a world view is not what we are about at all. It's not a stick of rock, it's a pick and mix. It should be full of diversity. To take Iraq, it was really important in our recent focus on Saddam that we had Con Coughlin, who is hawkish, but we also had Rod Liddle, so there was a balance. That is what our readers want, not wall-to-wall articles by neo-cons."
Any staff hoping The Spectator can now resume its traditional role as an oasis of genteel tranquillity while the rest of the Barclay empire grapples with pod-casting, will be disappointed. "Expectations of all media organisations are soaring and the challenge for me is how to adapt an already successful brand in a new context. Readers, viewers, surfers are just demanding more and more, and the media by which they are bombarded are proliferating at such a rate that any media organisation has to constantly raise its game."
Decoding this, it seems d'Ancona will emphasise the qualities that gave the magazine its appeal through the eras of Charles Moore and Dominic Lawson. "You have to preserve and nurture the wit, the high quality writing, the mischief and ability to create controversy."
But looks are important too. Expect big, cartoony front covers to maximise the impact on the news-stand. "I certainly want to increase the impact of the front cover, the news-stand sale is up 10 per cent since I arrived. You've got to grab the reader who's browsing."
Another sector about to be grabbed are the denizens of the Citywho have told d'Ancona that they do not believe the magazine is for them. "I went to a City dinner the other night and mostly they didn't take it. There are readers to be harvested there and we will build up our business coverage, so people in the Square Mile feel they belong and are people of intellect, wit, mischief and fun."
Attempting to turn hedge fund managers into people of mischief and fun might seem a monumental task, but appealing to women is another challenge for a magazine that is overwhelmingly male.
On this score, d'Ancona has brought in as contributing editor Anne Applebaum - "one of the best journalists in the world" - and boasts of pieces by Jemima Lewis and Frances Osborne which, he says, "have an eye to feminine voices" as well as a not-yet-funny satire Notting Hill Nobody, featuring a ditzy Tory apparatchik. But any women who find the aged Greek male chauvinist Taki an obstacle to their enjoyment of the magazine are likely to be disappointed.
"No, I'm not going to sack him. Taki is enormously popular. A lot of people on the left find him an entertaining insight in to how things are on the other side. He sits alongside Jeremy Clarke, who in Low Life describes things like shopping in down-at-heel superstores and the poverty of people there with pathos and wit."
D'Ancona is famous for possessing skills worthy of the highest echelons of the Diplomatic Service, and nowhere is this more evident than in "the Andrew Neil question". How will he handle a chief executive who has already imposed two assistant editors and seems certain to want a major editorial say?
"I like him! I admire him! Andrew was very kind to me when I started at Wapping, he brought me on and the chance to work for him was an attraction. The idea that he's always peering over my shoulder is absurd. At no point has he applied the slightest pressure to me."
One of Neil's initiatives is to remove The Spectator from its Bloomsbury location to somewhere modern and glassy in Westminster, and in this too d'Ancona enthusiastically concurs, even if it means a longer commute from his home in Victoria Park, where he lives with his two sons and his wife, Sarah Schaefer. She works for the Foreign Policy Centre having once been with the Britain in Europe campaign.
Though it has a dog underfoot, every narrow room crammed with staff and could not look less like the hub of a modern multi-media organisation, the Georgian house in Doughty Street has been integral to The Spectator's identity. But d'Ancona is no more sentimental than he was about leaving the cloistered charms of All Souls.
"I could have been an academic, but I heard the siren call of journalism. I wrote a book review for The Guardian and I remember walking into the news room and thinking 'This is great! I'd love to be here'."
Even his flourishing sideline as a novelist - his second book, Tabatha's Code, is out in May - has been put on hold. "I've started the third one but it's something I'm going to have to do in the evenings. I want to keep writing, but I'm focusing like a laser on The Spectator now. My mind cannot be on other things."
Freebie for hacks shock
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Whisper it not, Iain
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Naughtie and Rice
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