So what's the secret of 'The Economist'?

An absence of bylines is all part of the prestigious weekly's mystique. As its editor steps down, former staffer Stephen Hugh Jones offers a glimpse of life on the inside
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Its circulation has doubled since. Emmott, who is to step down, will hand over arguably the most successful news magazine, or paper, as it calls itself, in the world.

Born in 1843, The Economist in the mid-1930s was still a puny, London-centred magazine, selling under 10,000 copies. By the mid-1950s the figure was 50,000, by 1970 100,000. Then came an explosion: 250,000 by 1984, double that by 1992, today 1.1 million with 52 per cent of those in the US and Canada and only 14 per cent in Britain.

How did The Economist take wing? Not thanks to its journalists alone: one secret has been its management's readiness to pour money into promotion in hard times as in good. In Britain sales have been pushed by white-on-red billboard ads of sophisticated word-play, aimed both to tickle up-market readers and reassure news-agents.

Yet no poor product can be sold, week after week, for long. The Economist's journalists are its biggest asset. They are often misrepresented. Emmott's recruitment - and others recommended by the same Magdalen don - might suggest they are just a bunch of righties wet behind the ears from Oxbridge. So might his appointment as editor at the ripe old age of 36, or that of (ex-Balliol) Andrew Knight, editor 1974-86, appointed at only 34.

But that either man was ever wet behind the ears, I doubt. Certainly, both by those ages had far wider experience than many such critics. People such as Simon Jenkins or Andrew Marr were hardly novices when they joined The Economist. And three journalists were recently at work there in their seventies.

Yet neither is The Economist akin to some solemn senior common room. Dons may be solemn, its journos are not. When they meet in Emmott's office on Monday mornings, the loudest sound is laughter. The Economist is a fun place to work.

Its journalists' anonymity - all articles but its 14-page surveys are unsigned - suggests to outsiders a coherent, single-minded group. Wrong. Its then foreign editor fiercely supported the Vietnam war; his man in Paris was a Trot. Views on the Middle East, say, are as divided today. Many of its journalists, as I was, are to the left of the paper. But in 36 years barely ever can I recall political divisions becoming personal.

Nor is there much back-stabbing. Anonymity helps here, too. Economist writers regret having no byline. But it is harder to nourish a bruised ego, or rage at some section editor's massacre of your crafted prose, when you know the article is The Economist's, not yours. Few readers will know whose ego or prose lay behind it.

The result is a more coherent paper, for diversity seldom reaches print. Past editors liked to call The Economist "a college of opinion". Well, it is more of one than the college of cardinals. But in St James's Street, London, as in the Vatican, it is perfectly clear who ultimately is boss.

That does not mean simply trampling over those who disagree. Under Rupert Pennant-Rea, editor from 1986 to 1993, I once wrote a leader backing local government against That-cherite centralism. He chose not to print it. His privilege; yet back to me came my typescript, covered in his explanatory notes.

Courtesy could be personal, too. In 1979 I and others had a flaming disagreement with Andrew Knight. In substance, we were right. But the way I, his business editor, conducted the dispute seems to me, now, over the edge of disloyalty. The result was familiar: duly compensated, I quit. Not so the later outcome. Two years on, when I lost my job elsewhere, Knight promptly commissioned me to write a survey of religions, paying well over the going rate. That speaks for him, but also for The Economist.

And though its editor is boss, OK, none thinks he knows its skilled specialists' jobs better than they do. Specialists they are, yet broadly skilled. Transfers from business reporting to politics or foreign affairs are common, far more so than in most newspapers.

So is experience abroad. By now, a third of the paper's 75 staff journalists are in posts overseas. Even its London staff speak at least 10 languages among them, Greek and Russian included; plus Estonian and, earlier, Polish, if you add the researchers. Racial diversity, in contrast, is lacking. The Economist is firmly anti-racist, but neither in principle nor practice does it favour positive discrimination. An ethnic Asian or two and that, so far, is it.

The other side of The Economist's success has been changing times. It was well placed, and eager, to change with them. Norman Macrae, a past economics editor and in the 1960s to 1980s the spiritual father of today's Economist, was a Thatcherite before she was. He believed anything could be privatised. Many of us thought him bonkers. We were wrong.

Pennant-Rea, too, was a key mover in that direction. He believed passionately in free markets. Hence today the paper's tendency to treat the market not just as an effective tool but almost a code of morals. That irks many critics, but it for sure has been in tune with the times.

Politically, The Economist sees itself as of the radical centre. Radical right, snort its foes, citing not just its fundamentalist free-marketry but its ardent philo-Americanism and its old views on Vietnam or Pinochet, and, recently, Iraq.

In part, that is unfair. In 1914, its then editor denounced entry to The Great War. In the 1930s, it was anti-Nazi from the start, as much of the right was not. It condemned Eden's 1956 Suez folly.

Its anti-racism, its unqualified support for free speech, its backing for asylum seekers as for economic migration, these spring from the heart, not just the free-market head. It believes in meritocracy. Too strongly for those who prefer democracy, but this does mean contempt for Britain's outworn class structure. And, under Emmott, for the monarchy.

Except on market forces, the result is an unlikely mixture. Fiercely against state intervention (and trade unions), The Economist yet holds to humane views shared by any old-style progressive. Edited in London, it is closer emotionally to Washington. Global in outlook and sales, it still offers readers abroad four pages of British news (and in Britain two more, its sole lapse from its belief that one text can serve the world).

The contradictions extend into real life. Hard-hearted editorially, the paper, as an employer, is most often admirably paternalist. One paradox sums it up. The Economist knows to its roots that "there is no free lunch". Every Wednesday, their busiest day, its journalists enjoy an excellent one.

Stephen Hugh-Jones was a long-serving Economist journalist, just retired


Six who passed through the hallowed portals

Andrew Neil

Joined in 1973 and was corres-pondent in Belfast, London and the US. In 1982 he became UK editor before taking over at The Sunday Times a year later, remaining in it for more than 10 years.

Andrew Marr

Joined in 1988 as political editor. He left four years later to become The Independent's chief political commentator and then editor. BBC political editor until last year.

Sir Alastair Burnet

A leader writer from 1958 until 1962 when he became ITN's political editor. Burnet returned to The Economist in 1965 as editor while continuing to present the ITN evening news.

Chris Huhne

The Lib-Dem leadership challenger joined in 1977 as Brussels correspondent. Went on to senior positions at The Independent and The Guardian before becoming an MEP and MP.

Sir Simon Jenkins

Another former political editor at The Economist, he was better known as editor of the Evening Standard and The Times. Now a columnist on The Sunday Times and The Guardian.

Adam Raphael

A former reporter on The Guardian and executive editor of The Observer, he joined The Economist as political correspondent in 1994 and remained there for 10 years. Now helps edit The Good Hotel Guide.


Oxford 'Mail'

A finishing school for Associated Newspapers seems to have been established at the Oxford University paper Cherwell, where two new star players have been signed up - Alex Dacre and Sophie Bower. Familiar surnames, non? Dacre, son of Daily Mail editor Paul, has been made deputy features editor. Sophie, daughter of Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley, has decided that fashion is her calling, and has been reviewing local outlets. Neither was available to speak to The Independent on Sunday. How very grand.

Richard, Judy, Jeffrey

Is the rehabilitation of Lord Archer complete? After keeping a low profile since his release from prison five years ago, Archer is back on the publicity circuit with his new book False Impression, and has been invited on to Richard & Judy for one his first public appearances. "He's due in on Monday," says my man on the show. "It's just a guest slot, not the Book Club, but they might be asking him a few questions of the ilk." Lord Archer, however, had better not make himself too comfortable on the daytime sofas. "When George Galloway went on a couple of weeks ago, after his Celebrity Big Brother appearance, Richard Madeley gave him quite a hard time. Sometimes they lay into guests. It depends on the mood of the day."

Silence of the Wolff

While Michael Wolff has built a reputation on mercilessly acid critiques of the American and global media scenes, the Vanity Fair contributor is a little prickly when it comes to his own shortcomings. Wolff pitched up to Vanity Fair just over two years ago after he tried, and failed, to buy New York magazine, for which he was then a columnist. However, the subject is still very touchy. In an interview for online magazine, I Want Media, Wolff is asked about New York magazine's front cover on blogging. "I never read New York magazine. I never let people talk to me about New York magazine. It does not exist in my universe... It broke my heart. My family is banned from reading it or mentioning it." And you thought New York was the capital of therapy.

Morgan: now for film

Piers Morgan's new book, The Insider, may not have been the most accurate history of Fleet Street, but it was certainly among the most colourful. Thanks to which he has just signed a deal for the film rights. "It's being made by Company Pictures who make Shameless," Piers tells me. "We are talking about a two-hour film, a made-for-TV movie. The plan being it starts on More4 and then goes to Channel 4. The big question is who is going to play Morgan. "I'm not happy with some of the weaker suggestions, like Hugh Grant," Morgan says. "I want something more like Russell Crowe meets Colin Farrell meets Colin Firth."

Godric's tea-ful farewell

In most workplaces, the boss gets you a drink on your last day in the office. Not in Downing Street. Journalists were bemused when, halfway through the Prime Minister's monthly news conference last week, a huge wooden panel swung open. Enter, stage left, Godric Smith, Tony Blair's former spokesman, bearing a silver tray with the prime ministerial mug of tea. "It's his last day," said the Prime Minister, as if that was an explanation. The popular Smith, a civil servant who has worked in No 10 since 1997, is off to promote the 2012 Olympics. After his convincingly steady impression of a butler, perhaps he will get to carry the torch.