Matthew d'Ancona: Don't call him

As 'The Spectator' moves into its new home, the editor tells Ian Burrell that it's no longer just for the blimps of the shires
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The Independent Online

At long last, a new home has been found for Frank Johnson's molar, Charles Moore's fragment of red telephone box, the striped chesterfield on which Boris Johnson used to take a nap and Ian Gilmour's Turkish rug.

These multifarious artefacts, along with the cook (Rose Prince), the wife (Kimberly Quinn), the lover (Rod Liddle), Harry the office Jack Russell and the rest of the diverse team that produces the oldest continuously published magazine in the English language, are about to hit the road. The Spectator will abandon the ramshackle Doughty Street townhouse in which it has been based for 36 years to establish new premises close to the Houses of Parliament.

For Matthew d'Ancona, the magazine's 38-year-old editor, the move will help to reinforce the idea that the title is entering an exciting new era, six months after he took the helm. Already in his short tenure he has been able to unveil the magazine's highest ever ABC sales figure of 70,089.

He says that his task has been helped considerably by the return to Britain of two-party politics. "There's a thirst for political coverage," he says. "The Tory party until December was just that, it was a party in every sense of that word. Now it's a movement that is seriously going for power."

So it is appropriate that The Spectator's new location at 22 Old Queen Street, positions the right-of-centre magazine close to Labour Party headquarters (No 16) but closer still to the Association of Conservative Clubs (No 24). The editor is more than happy to say goodbye to literary and academic Bloomsbury to decamp to Westminster.

"This building for all its memories is just not fit for purpose any more. It's too small," he says. "People come here and they see this office, the garden and sometimes the dining room and what they don't see is the basement and the rooms at the top when it's too hot. We are an expanding title and we need proper modern offices. The new building is right by Parliament which I think is a good thing for a magazine that writes about politics."

Those that associate 56 Doughty Street (a road on which Charles Dickens once lived) with the famously sodden Spectator lunches and parties will be glad to learn that the new building, a Queen Anne property, affords a splendid aspect over St James Park and has its own garden.

The relocation will coincide with a substantial marketing push - including newspaper and poster advertising - that d'Ancona describes without apology as "a branding campaign". This campaign will attempt to persuade readers, both young and old, that The Spectator is the place to discover fine writing that cannot be found elsewhere. "I think of it as a coffee house. If you are an older reader then it's an old-fashioned coffee house. If you're a new reader it's Starbucks. It's a place where people can meet and chat and hear opinion and controversy."

The 178-year-old title has enjoyed much free publicity in its recent past as the extramarital liaisons of former editor Boris, star columnist Liddle and publisher Quinn were made public. The extent of the romping so resembled a 1970s West End farce that the magazine's own drama critics Toby Young and Lloyd Evans wrote it up as a play called Who's the Daddy?.

It did not harm sales, d'Ancona admits. "It was before my time but I've no doubt that when specific stories were breaking that people would pick up the magazine out of interest. You can't base the prosperity of a weekly magazine on that basis. The celebrity interest, as it were, does not drive subscribers."

The Speccie may have briefly been re-nicknamed the "Sextator" but the new marketing campaign will have to overcome a more enduring reputation that the magazine is the staple fare of retired colonels in the shires.

The same stereotyping is directed at d'Ancona himself. A former editor of The Sunday Telegraph, he has been described as "fogeyish" and "establishment". Neither description matches the figure sitting at the table in his Victorian drawing-room office.

Matthew d'Ancona is a very long way from being a Blimp. He is a pop music obsessive, who cites "Pretty Vacant" by the Sex Pistols as his favourite all-time record and who recently added Lily Allen's debut album to his iPod. "The interesting thing about the pop phenomenon is that it's now 50 years old and so for me as a 38-year-old to like pop is not really very strange. I sometimes think that perhaps youth culture has gone elsewhere really - the fact that 38-year-olds buy Lily Allen suggests that Lily Allen isn't actually what young people are really doing." His "main hobby" is film, with the slick thriller Brick being his most recent favourite. "I am a film maniac. I do watch as many films as possible, consistent with having two kids," he says.

Although d'Ancona describes himself as right of centre ("to say otherwise would obviously be lying"), he is married to Sarah Schaefer, a Labour supporter and former journalist on The Independent, who works for the Foreign Policy Centre, a Europhile Blairite think tank. The couple live with their two young children in the deprived east London district of Hackney.

Prior to that they lived in the nearby Bethnal Green, an area which fascinated d'Ancona and was the setting of his first novel Going East, a story of multicultural London post 9/11. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph in 2003, d'Ancona described the East End thus: "In the sense that it is truly multicultural and global - a 21st-century Babel - its shows us what the future will be like. Radically different groups will have to find ways of co-existing (as, for the most part, they do here). Life will become more mixed up, more heterogeneous. Identity will become more complicated, as borders melt and cultures mingle."

Although he read history at Oxford (he holds the elite intellectual distinction of being a fellow of All Souls), what enthuses d'Ancona is the now and the new. He talks repeatedly of The Spectator setting the agenda ("making the weather") and breaking stories rather than merely publishing weekly retrospectives.

While other right-of-centre commentators regarded Tony Blair's 1997 election win as an aberration, d'Ancona recognised its lasting significance. "Cameron is living proof that, whether people like it or not, the Blair era has fundamentally altered the way we do things politically."

Such an approach has helped him to maintain connections with the Government. "They know the magazine is right of centre but they also know it's not the in-house journal of anyone or anything. We give people a fair ride and we will praise people when they do well and give them a biffing when they don't. We've been pretty generous to Cameron since I arrived but we gave him a real telling-off over 'Hug a Hoodie'."

D'Ancona writes for the magazine - including an interview with Jack Straw that caused controversy over the date of Tony Blair's departure as Prime Minister - and types an exclusive piece each week for The Spectator website, which he regards as an important part of the brand. Sunday Telegraph editor Patience Wheatcroft has retained his services as a political columnist. "It's important to keep writing and to meet people and to get out of this office. I travel as much as editing allows. I really believe in not stopping being a journalist." His appointment in February was accompanied by speculation that he would be a mere puppet for The Spectator chief executive Andrew Neil. "Andrew is completely and utterly hands off when it comes to the editorial content of the magazine and very, very good for the magazine when it comes to its commercial direction," is his response.

Although he has 15 years' experience on national newspapers, d'Ancona, as a thirty-something, is younger than most political writers and believes that some have misunderstood important changes among the electorate. "Globalisation, which I'm profoundly in favour of, has produced discontents. I think that's what is interesting and dividing people now much more than the old left-right class-based politics, I really do," he says.

"I think that the mainstream media has not quite got its head round this huge change, partly because it is generational. If you want to understand what's going on in politics you have to understand that the way which politics is mediated now is not always through the parliamentary process."

Media organisations, he believes, are often too quick to write off public interest in politics. "There's a lot of talk about the public being apathetic and I don't buy that for a minute. I was on Lord Puttnam's commission on the future of Parliament, which was fascinating. One thing became clear which was that there was no problem with the public - the problem is how we communicate this process to them."

He believes the media deluge people experience day to day has created the conditions for a "real golden age" for weekly periodicals that can make sense of it all. "If you'd asked people 10 years ago if that sector of the market would be thriving they would have laughed at you. But it is. I suspect it's to do with the fact that there is such a torrent of information coming at you and so little time. If you've been bombarded with stuff on the web, radio and TV what you are looking for is some value added, some information you couldn't get elsewhere, some great writing or some unbeatable analysis."

His magazine, he says, can give a global context to current concerns over terrorism. "I think there's a huge opportunity and responsibility for publications like The Spectator to explain it and slightly get away from this idea that it's just a sub-set of domestic politics. You read a lot of the coverage of it and you think that the minute that Tony Blair resigns as Prime Minister this will go away. Well, it won't. What we have in this country is a very complex situation because this is a diverse country and that is in my view a very good thing. I like the fact that I live in a porous, tolerant, multicultural society. People that talk about mono-culturalism hark back to an era that I'm not sure really existed."

He is clearly frustrated by the current level of debate over immigration and integration. "The clash of civilisations is not between civilisations but within people themselves. You have young Muslim youth growing up in the club scene, the drug scene, in British inner-city life but also exposed to the most militant form of Islam," he says. "Essentially what you see in this country most of the time is a sterile battlefield between Powellism on the one hand and political correctness on the other. Powellism is 'This is all the product of unhinged immigration and what did we expect?'. Political correctness is 'You can't say anything about anything and if you do you're a racist'. As a consequence, between these two extremes, we've ended up with a kind of non-debate and it's very hard to engage with these issues without getting in terrible trouble. But you have to, you have to."

Perhaps the best example of d'Ancona's Spectator tackling delicate subject matter was political editor Peter Oborne's reportage on the growing emergence of the British National Party in Barking and Dagenham. "He really got a sense on the ground of how serious this problem was and wrote it up with some alarm," says the editor. "There's a strong premium on articles that will provide new information but not arid facts. What I want is fine writing that is witty and engaging. I've no ambitions to turn the magazine into Newsweek or Time, but nonetheless it's extremely important to be on top of what's happening."

His star writers are the hilarious but increasingly curmudgeonly Liddle and Jeremy Clarke, who has succeeded the late Jeffrey Bernard as author of the Low Life column. D'Ancona has introduced a mischievous Diary of a Notting Hill Nobody, penned under the name 'Tamzin Lightwater' by a Tory insider and detailing the minutiae of the Cameron revolution.

Business coverage, led by Martin Van der Weyer, has been beefed up and a section on luxury living has been introduced. Famous bylines pepper the lifestyle pages. "We have people like Nick Coleridge, Freddie Forsyth writing on scuba diving, Martha Kearney writing about how to be a beekeeper, a very charming piece by Sophie Dahl about her first night at the Ritz. This is very much within the Spectator tradition. You wouldn't find that in some sort of style magazine because we can attract the best writers."

Another star writer is Boris Johnson, whom d'Ancona is very happy to keep on board. "I really mean to keep him at the forefront of the magazine's activities as much as his very busy life will enjoy. He's a very important part of The Spectator family."

When Johnson stepped down last year it was to take up a role as shadow minister for higher education. Previous Spectator editors Iain Macleod, Ian Gilmour and Nigel Lawson all went on to become Tory cabinet ministers. D'Ancona says an MP's life is not for him because he will never toe a party line. "I'd make a terrible politician because I'm not a party man. I'm not a member of the Tory party and I have strong views on a whole range of things."

He has been offered political roles and is working on his third novel, but knows his true vocation. "I'll always put this first. I love journalism and that's what I want to do," he says.

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