A gentile voice that's set to trigger some heated debate

Martin Bright is the first non-Jew to be political editor of the Jewish Chronicle. He talks to Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

Martin Bright starts work today as the first non-Jewish political editor in the 168-year-old history of The Jewish Chronicle and he is not expecting the job to be easy. Across the blogosphere he's already a bête noire, a target for right-wingers, hard-line lefties and Islamic radicals alike. He might as well have a few conservative JC readers on his back as well.

"I know that some people will see my accepting the job as confirmation that I'm not only the first non-Jewish political editor of The Jewish Chronicle but I'm also the first left-wing, Neo-Con, Zionist political editor of The Jewish Chronicle," he acknowledges with a sense of resignation.

Stephen Pollard, the JC's new editor, is apparently happy to have such a strident voice on the staff of the world's oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper. "He said rather flatteringly that they had been looking for the Jewish Martin Bright but had decided they might as well go for the real thing."

Bright, 43, was an award-winning political editor of the left-leaning New Statesman before being ousted over what his friend, The Observer columnist Nick Cohen, claimed in a passionate if well-oiled speech at the Orwell Prize this year, was a coup organised by the Prime Minister in response to the journalist's criticisms of the Government. Bright praises Cohen for "an act of solidarity that was beyond the call of duty" but adds "I would be amazed if the Prime Minister even found time to think about it to be honest". Even so, the Labour MP and then Statesman owner Geoffrey Robinson felt the need to write to The Times to deny Downing Street's involvement.

Since then Bright has re-emerged as a writer on the website of the right-leaning Spectator, and he is about to become a fixture in the magazine itself, providing "regular analysis of the state of the left and the state of the Labour Party". The Spectator, he says, has a "fascination for the political world" that gives it a dynamism which is "driving the debate about the future of the right and the left".

He says he will "have to guard against simply being The Spectator's pet lefty" and when he is reminded that Spectator columnist Rod Liddle already claims to occupy a similar left-of-centre position, he bellows with laughter. "Rod Liddle? That's a very interesting categorisation."

To some, such as The Guardian writer Seumas Milne, Bright is in no danger of being a pet lefty as he has already sold out to the right. This may be partly down to a documentary Bright made for Channel 4's Dispatches, criticising Ken Livingstone's record as Mayor of London. Some believe this was a key factor in his departure from the Statesman. "There's some suggestion that I'm on a similar journey from the left to the right as say [Daily Mail columnist] Melanie Phillips," says Bright. "I'm sure some people will see this [Spectator role] as confirmation of their worst fears about me but I just urge them to read what I write."

The idea of a political conversion such as that undergone by writers such as Phillips or the Mail on Sunday's Peter Hitchens is nonsense, he says. "On every issue, including radical Islam, I am firmly on the left. I was political editor of The New Statesman and often found myself to the left of the Labour government on everything from education and health policy through to policy on anti-terrorism."

Aside from his journalism, Bright has founded an organisation called New Deal of the Mind, inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt's new deal of the Thirties but aiming to generate job opportunities in the creative industries rather than digging roads. He works out of a Portakabin at London's South Bank Centre, shared with, among others, the centre's poet-in-residence Lemn Sissay and the musical beatboxer Shlomo.

The project, set up with the help of Maggie Darling, wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and a former journalist, includes plans for Pop-Up Centres in major cities, offering space for lap-top-carrying freelances and rehearsal areas for dancers, actors and musicians. Bright hopes to attract funding for 30 new jobs at the South Bank and has plans in the West Midlands where he wants the 2 Tone Ska music movement that emerged in the late-Seventies recession to be recorded and archived digitally by a new generation of media workers.

Aside from creating jobs, no subject seems to arouse Bright quite so much as radical Islam. As a young journalist he lived in Paris, writing for an English-language magazine aimed at French students and spending much of his time hanging out with intellectuals and dissidents at the Islamic Centre on the banks of the Seine. When he returned to London he did a Masters degree in Islamic history at the School of Oriental and African Studies. "I have a personal interest in religion and the politics of religion and part of me would like to believe but I can't just pretend that I do," says Bright.

As he starts today at The Jewish Chronicle, Bright, a former home affairs correspondent for The Observer, believes anti-semitic attacks are on the increase in Britain, partly as a result of Islamic extremism. "It's a combination of far-right white extremism and also the rise of what I would describe as right-wing extremism in the Muslim community." Bright has become an outspoken critic of the Muslim Council of Britain, arguing that it has become dominated by the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami organisation.

He will not, though, have a narrow focus in what he writes about. "The idea is to broaden the scope of their political coverage. It would be fair to say that they want to move the political coverage away from the more par- ochial approach they have had in the past and rather than saying 'What will interest our Jewish readers?' they are saying that what interests readers will be what interests anyone in politics."

Brought up in Bristol in a family he describes as "agnostic", Bright hopes he "can act as some kind of bridge between the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community, including the Muslim community, with which I have very healthy and well-developed contacts". This radical appointment by the JC is an indication "of the openness of the publication and of the Jewish community", Bright believes. "I think it's a good sign."