New Statesman: 'Staggers' goes glossy? Not exactly

The 'New Statesman' is smartening up, and that includes glossy covers. That doesn't mean it's lowering its intellectual tone, however, as the long-running weekly magazine's new editor John Kampfner is keen to point out to Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

At the request of The Independent's photographer, John Kampfner squats beneath some classic New Statesman cartoons that are hung in the boardroom of the 92-year-old periodical. As he bends his knees he strikes a pose that a yoga teacher might recognise as being half way towards Utkatasana (posture of the powerful and mighty). Only he has something of a grimace on his face.

"I've done my ACL," the new New Statesman editor says blokeishly, by way of explaining his grimace. Kampfner, it turns out, snapped his anterior cruciate ligament while playing football at Hampden Park in July.

Playing at the Scottish national stadium is not such a big deal these days, of course, and Kampfner was actually playing seven-a-side for a team of journos and politicos, though he did at least manage to imitate Scotland's players by departing the field in a state of acute distress.

During this interview to mark his first six months at the helm of Britain's most influential left-leaning magazine, the strain placed on his ailing knee is not the only moment he feels pain. Kampfner literally puts his head in his hands at one point as he recalls a bungled attempt at a dramatic cover story in June on the difficulties of suing tobacco companies over the health effects of smoking.

Amid the rest of the gloss and glamour on the newsstand that week, the New Statesman went with a picture of a giant cigarette butt being stubbed out. On a black background.

"I thought it was quite original and arresting at the time," says Kampfner. "I look back at it now and think if I was buying some wine gums and had 10 seconds to choose something to read I would not have alighted on that magazine."

While that cover causes Kampfner some discomfort, it would not be everyone's choice of his worst mistake of his fledgling editorship. The BBC chairman Michael Grade and the corporation's director general Mark Thompson would certainly cite his front-page article of early last month. That was a piece which caused uproar with its claims not just that the BBC had become cowed in its journalism but also that the chairman had wanted the irascible Radio 4 Today programme presenter John Humphrys sacked.

Never in the post-Hutton era has the BBC responded so indignantly to criticism. In an email to staff, Thompson called Kampfner's assertions "false, and indeed, utter nonsense". Grade told MPs that he could "absolutely, categorically deny there was any truth in it whatsoever".

But Kampfner - who has stuck to his guns all along - maintains that his piece was long in the planning and thoroughly researched. The former political commentator for the Today programme says: "It's a story that has been gestating. A lot of people at the BBC, people I know, respect and have worked with, were talking to me post-Hutton about their concerns for a very long time.

"This was a piece I had been planning to write. This wasn't something that was done at the spur of the moment; it was something I knew the consequences of. I didn't go into it blindly."

His own journalism was "How can I put it? Very rigorous", he says. "I was very confident about the story being right before and during. The subsequent conversations I have had make me even more confident than I was then."

Kampfner asserts that, in spite of denials from the BBC, a "culture of safety first" has emerged at the corporation post-Hutton with "more and more layers of people overseeing issues and having reviews of coverage".

His motivation in writing the piece was not to simply raise the profile of his publication. "Why run with this story if it's just going to get me flak? What's in it for me?" he asks. "Thinking of a whacky, counter-intuitive idea and putting it on the cover just to be sensationalist is not what we are about. You might get an instant hit but you don't get sustained respect."

That said, the new NS editor has quickly come to realise the value of good marketing and the Staggers has appointed a marketing manager, Tim Moore, who is drawing up a campaign to broaden awareness of the title. "We haven't been hitting student unions. We haven't been hitting political people, the literary world," notes Kampfner.

Circulation is around 24,000, about a third of the right-wing Spectator. "It was a graph that was going down and went down a bit further and now it's started to go up" is how Kampfner describes his sales record so far. He says that the combined sale of The Guardian and The Independent (close to 700,000) suggests there is much potential for his magazine to expand.

He has already written a slogan - "Intelligence with Edge" - that captures the spirit of the Kampfner New Statesman and has been used in a couple of ads.

Distribution of the magazine will be overhauled, with deadlines brought forward so that more shops can stock it on Thursday morning. (It is currently available in only 10-20 per cent of outlets at that time.) It was Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator, who prompted the idea for earlier deadlines when - as an old pal of Kampfner's - he guested as a New Statesman diarist earlier this summer. The Spectator also hits the streets on Thursdays.

Kampfner recalls: "I agreed to send Boris a proof of his copy and phoned him on his mobile at 4pm when we are at our most frenetic. He seemed to be out playing with the kids. I said, 'Boris, what are you doing?' He said, 'What are you doing working on Wednesday afternoon?'"

The Spectator, Kampfner learned, goes to bed at 2pm, compared with the Statesman's 7pm. As a result, the Speccie is much easier to find on Thursdays.

As well as being easier to buy, the Statesman will also look different in 2006. "We are going to go to glossier covers," says Kampfner. "That might sound very technical but I think it has an effect on people, in terms of it being the kind of magazine you want to curl up in front of a fire with on a winter's day or sit out in the garden with on a summer's day."

He is anxious that glossier paper doesn't translate as a "glossy" magazine. "As long as people don't think we have dumbed down or become poppy. We can be intellectually challenging but also visually appealing," he says.

Ultimately, though, Kampfner knows that redesigns and slogans are no substitute for the best marketing tool of all: good editorial. He has made a succession of appointments, most notably Rory Bremner as a columnist. Two more high-profile appointees will be named after Christmas.

Kampfner's predecessor, Peter Wilby, has been given a media column, while the editor's own replacement as NS political editor is the former Observer journalist Martin Bright, who has not hesitated to demolish skilfully what was left of David Blunkett's credibility and to undermine the myth of Ken Clarke as a caring politician.

Kampfner has run some daring and bold covers. He is particularly proud of the recent Guantanamo Bay cover story, written very elegantly by the human rights lawyer (and regular visitor to Camp X-Ray) Clive Stafford-Smith. "Here is a guy who's incredibly passionate and radical, writes very fluently and vividly about a burning subject, one which is rarely mentioned in the media - with the possible exception of your good selves - and yet he did it in a way which was incredibly engaging. It wasn't a thumping his fist on the table sort of journalism."

Other good sellers include an Israel "special" and a cover based on a list of Ten People to Change the World. Domestic cover stories generally tend to go down less well with readers, research has found.

John Pilger still has a large following and Kampfner feels vindicated in letting the veteran investigative journalist off the leash for the "provocative" cover "Blair's Bombs" two weeks after the 7 July attacks. "He made the case that was difficult to make at the time - that if you are going to carry out one of the most foolhardy acts of foreign policy of the past 50 years, then it will have consequences for your own people and their security."

The new editor followed this up the next week with a Union Jack cover and a piece by Tristram Hunt and Ekow Eshun on "A Country Worth Defending". Some NS diehards decried the cover as "cheap nationalism". But Kampfner says it is his job to challenge assumptions and has even commissioned right-wing historian Andrew Roberts to write a piece "Why Maggie was right to sink the Belgrano", which was flagged up on the magazine cover.

He refuses to see The Guardian's repositioning in the centre, away from what editor Alan Rusbridger has described as the "cul de sac" of its former leftist niche, as a sign that the New Statesman is becoming something of an anachronism.

"There are more people out there who are passionate about what is going on in the world, be it environment, be it poverty, be it development, be it race relations, than there are newspaper readers at the moment," he argues. "Offline media is struggling to retain the interest of people who are passionate about things."

Journalists, and their attitudes, can be a cause of this shortcoming, he thinks (particularly after recently reviewing Richard Ingrams's biography of campaigning reporter Paul Foot). "It made me think how few journalists are seriously passionate about what they do," he says. "It's not just a question of getting the story, getting plaudits, winning prizes and getting promotions. A story doesn't stop being a story once it has hit the front pages.

"If you are passionate about something it should really eat you up. Passion has become almost a dirty word. Journalists are now supposed to be a little bit aloof. I would venture to suggest that is misreading the popular mood."

The journalism he is seeking is "radical, edgy, no holds barred" and written in "a tone that doesn't drone, doesn't turn people off".

If Kampfner can find such a balance then he will have answered the question that is foremost in his mind. "How do you ensure that increasing numbers of people read the New Statesman not because they feel they ought to but because they really, really want to?"