Me, Boris, and a bust-up at 'The Spectator' that was only a matter of time

In the latest ructions at the magazine of the moment, Stephen Glover quit as its media columnist. He tells Jane Thynne where it all went wrong
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The Independent Online

It seems like all of 10 minutes since the unwelcome glare of media attention last fell upon The Spectator. So when the resignation of Stephen Glover, its media columnist, last week propelled the magazine straight back into the spotlight, there was a sense of inevitability all round.

It seems like all of 10 minutes since the unwelcome glare of media attention last fell upon The Spectator. So when the resignation of Stephen Glover, its media columnist, last week propelled the magazine straight back into the spotlight, there was a sense of inevitability all round.

"I knew if it wasn't this week, it would be some other week," he said on Friday, adding that he was "not feeling angry, just sad".

Yet the particular issue which spurred his resignation - over whether he should be permitted to comment on large job cuts at the Telegraph group (The Spectator's parent company) - offers a fascinating glimpse into how the media world reports itself.

"Boris rang me on Sunday," recalls Glover. "He said, 'What are you writing about? I don't think we should write about the Telegraph cuts.' So I did a piece on The Times's war with the Tories. But then I thought I've got to say something, so I said to him, 'Boris, I'll bend over backwards to write a reasonable piece.' But he said he couldn't. I said it's not possible to write a media column without referring to this."

And yet, says Glover, his article was not anti the changes at the Barclay brothers-owned Telegraph. "If anything, my piece was in support of the paper's management." Crucially it volunteered areas where cuts could be made: "The Daily Telegraph employs some 450 journalists, as well as many freelances. Is it not possible that in the sports and City and leader writing departments in particular there is an ounce or two of spare fat?"

This, according to Glover, was not acceptable to Boris. "He thought if he printed anything about the Telegraph at all, it might offend the Barclay brothers. Then I got a call from Stuart Reid [The Spectator's deputy editor] pleading with me not to make an issue of it." Many detected the hand of Andrew Neil in the episode. In November the Barclays put The Spectator under the wing of Press Holdings, which publishes The Scotsman and The Business, and has Neil as its supremo. And there is history between Neil and Glover.

"I'm aware Andrew Neil is no great admirer of mine," Glover remarks. "When he arrived he did say to Boris, 'If Glover gets a good offer elsewhere then get rid of him', which was obviously not the most supportive thing he could say."

Those close to the magazine claim that Johnson was "read the riot act" by Andrew Neil and instructed not to allow Glover to make any comment at all about the Telegraph group, but Johnson insists that Neil was unaware of last week's row over Glover's piece.

The decision, Johnson says, was entirely his. "I was pretty cheesed off that Stephen wrote about the Telegraph because I'd told him I couldn't see anything useful that could be said, seeing that The Spectator is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Telegraph group."

Does that mean that any editorial comment about the Telegraph group is off-limits in The Spectator? "Look, it's mad for Stephen to make this song and dance about his independence. It's utterly fictitious because he's a creature of the Daily Mail."

Glover, who has written a column for the Mail since 1998, stands accused of rarely criticising the Mail's owners, Associated Newspapers. "Stephen wouldn't dream of commenting on Paul Dacre," says Johnson. "He wouldn't have the balls, so he must accept that I'm entitled to edit anything about the Telegraph group that I don't like."

It is here that the two men reach uncomfortable agreement. Glover, while pointing out that he did a recent critical piece about the Evening Standard Lite, is brutally frank about refusing to bite the hand that feeds him. "We all live in the real world. There's something corrupt in every media column. No columnist is ever going to attack the paper he works for, but readers have every right to expect with a big news story that there will be some reference to it.

"I've written about the Telegraph but never viciously. I like it, so why would I attack it?

"Conrad Black used to write me letters correcting me politely, and once Dan Colson rang me to remonstrate, but in general there was a lot less hassle."

The moralof his tale, he feels, is that self-censorship is an insidious danger in the current media climate, and yet there is an "inherent corruption" in the business of media reporting.

"It's difficult to feel angry with Boris. I hope he stays because for all his deficiencies and tendency to cowardice he's a good editor. The Spectator fizzes and sparkles under him. It's a bit slapdash and wild but that reflects Boris's character. The fear is that Andrew Neil has his own candidate waiting in the wings for after the election and that makes Boris feel very, very insecure."

Meanwhile Glover, who is 53, has other projects on his mind. And not for the first time. It was Glover who, along with Andreas Whittam Smith and Matthew Symonds, co-founded The Independent in 1986. In 1990 he was launch editor of this paper, only to part company with Whittam Smith in acrimonious circumstances the following year. He has long nurtured a dream to launch another upmarket national, broadly modelled on Le Monde. The new paper, provisionally entitled "The World", would eschew the dumbing down he laments in other titles in favour of serious comment and international reporting.

When rumours of the planned launch first surfaced, with columnists such as Francis Wheen, Frank Johnson and other "major names" lined up, Neiltook the opportunity to pour buckets of cold water on the idea, calling it "downright foolish" and an investment he "wouldn't touch with a bargepole". Glover was a writer of "thumb-sucking pieces on the media from Oxford" who lacked the business acumen to take on established media magnates.

But Glover is unbowed. Claiming that things are now "very much on the front burner" he is looking for £15m and says, "We're at a very delicate stage. There's a possible big investor and a very good chance they'll invest.

"Wethink there's a small significant gap at the top of the market for a very high quality paper selling around 100,000. I'm spending several hours a day on this now, which in a way makes the whole question of me writing a media column entirely academic anyway."


Sitting ducks

The Tories may live to regret their decision to issue a writ against The Times over a piece by Andrew Pierce that alleged that Lynton Crosby, the party's new spin-doctor, believed the election was lost already. Currently the paper's diarist, Pierce is to return to Westminster after the election, where he will be let loose to sting where he pleases.

Men's talk

The team behind Question Time were rueing their luck on Thursday when political sensitivities forced them to field an all-male panel for the programme that went out from Belfast. Normally it's unheard of, but the interests of balance required the presence of David Trimble, Martin McGuinness, Jeffrey Donaldson and Mark Durkan, along with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Paul Murphy. On the night when Charles and Camilla was the only topic in town, a QT insider agreed that the five "weren't quite the sort of people the viewers wanted to hear from".

Family squabble

Columnists on the same paper often have their disagreements, and sometimes they make it into print. But rarely does "keeping it in the family" count for less than it did at The Guardian last week when chief sportswriter Richard Williams carried out an exquisite demolition job on colleagues Stephen Moss and Marina Hyde after they had written carping pieces about yachting heroine Ellen MacArthur. Williams's objections to them, it is understood, were warmly approved of by many a Guardian staffer.

Morning, matey

What's with John Prescott calling Edward Stourton "Eddie"? Listeners to Today on Friday could hardly believe their ears when they heard the Deputy Prime Minister talking to the presenter as if he was an old mate. "I'm not normally called that," Stourton tells us. "But he's done it before." Whatever next? Johnny Humphrys? Dave Frost? Jezza Paxman?

The sprinted word

Out this week: a book on the marriage between Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, by Mara Reinstein and Joey Bartolomeo of US Weekly. It proves again that if you want a job done fast, get a hack - or two. Publishers had the manuscript just five days after news of the break-up.