Magazines: The man who put his trust in brains

As 'Prospect' celebrates its 10th anniversary, editor David Goodhart tells Sholto Byrnes how he made the high-brow approach work
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The Independent Online

"There were some pretty bleak moments," says Goodhart. "I'd never edited anything before, and there were times when I thought that we hadn't been able to make it work."

This week, as Prospect celebrates its 10th anniversary, the picture is very different. Goodhart, 49, has just presided over the magazine's "Think Tank of the Year" awards; there's a party; and Atlantic Books is publishing a fat, handsome volume of highlights from the magazine. Through tightening up what Goodhart concedes was initially "baggy" editing, widening the cultural remit, and careful subscription targeting the magazine steadily built towards its current circulation of 24,000. Goodhart reckons he needs only another three or four thousand sales to break even.

To leave the FT, where he was the Germany correspondent, after 12 years, was a big move. "But I thought it was my destiny," explains Goodhart. "I was almost uniquely situated to do it. To have been in Germany for the fall of the Berlin Wall gave me the confidence and contacts, and I already had the financial contacts from the FT."

Goodhart's wife, Lucy Kellaway, was working at the FT, and he had some family money (he is the son of former Tory MP Sir Philip Goodhart and the nephew of Liberal Democrat peer Willie Goodhart), so he took a year off to start the magazine. After failing to convince potential backers such as the publishing millionaire Lord Gavron (who "looked bored" but offered £10,000), Goodhart found his angel in Derek Coombs, a former Tory MP who had earlier attempted to buy the New Statesman. With Coombs as the largest single shareholder, Goodhart raised £350,000, and the first issue of Prospect was produced from a garret in Bedford Square in September 1995.

At first the magazine was overwhelmingly political. Goodhart thought that after the election of Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party, and with the Statesman "going through a weak patch", there was a gap for his magazine.

But because of this early bias towards politics, and the interest at the time in such New Labour ideas as "stakeholding", the perception was that Prospect was for policy wonks. While congratulating her husband on his achievement in a letter in the new issue, even Mrs Goodhart admits that "there is a lot in this magazine that I find boring, or at least over my head". Is it for wonks? "It's an impression we've been fighting for years," says Goodhart. "We've always had a broader cultural coverage, particularly in the last three or four years We have short stories in every issue. We have more of an interior life. Perhaps the mistake was not to make more noise about that in the earlier issues."

Goodhart is happy to admit to mistakes. "We've got our timing spectacularly wrong on one or two things. We did a cover story called 'The End of War', the week they started bombing Kosovo. In our last issue we had an essay on the end of English cricket."

The triumphs have been in the reach and readership of his magazine, and in the stellar quality of its contributors, who have included polemicists such as the Hitchens brothers, distinguished academics such as Amartya Sen and Alan Ryan, and specialists by the dozen.

The new book is called Thinking Allowed. Is there any thinking which he wouldn't allow? "We would never go for shock value," says Goodhart. What about shocking but well-written? "Well, that's what would attract me," he says. "On taboos: we did once publish a piece by [the right-wing US social theorist] Charles Murray. But I think he's a legitimate figure. We are still, broadly speaking, on the liberal side of politics."

Goodhart sees Prospect's main purpose as "to think interesting, and occasionally dangerous, thoughts" and to examine the trade-offs between the desirable but competing goals that he sees politics today as being about.

How long will he stay as editor? "Well, my grandfather was the editor of the Law Courtly Review for 54 years," he says. "So there's a history of editorial longevity in the family. I'm waiting for the most thrilling experience of all - sitting opposite someone on the Tube who's reading Prospect."