Stephen Glover on The Press
The 'Statesman' needs more than clever writers - it needs some TLC
Monday 12 June 2006
Some 30 years ago, fresh out of university, I went to see the editors of The Spectator and the New Statesman. The former, Alexander Chancellor, had just taken over a struggling publication that was selling 15,000 copies a week. The latter, Anthony Howard, presided over a magazine with three times the circulation. His stable of writers included James Fenton, Christopher Hitchens, Tina Brown, Claire Tomlin, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, most of whom were then virtually unknown.
Now, the magazines have changed places. The Spectator sells nearly 70,000 copies a week, the New Statesman 25,000. Under Mr Chancellor's editorship, The Spectator attracted good and amusing writers, and became less narrowly political. So it has gone on. The New Statesman under Mr Howard's successors became more political, more left-wing and a lot less fun.
The Spectator has succeeded because it is more lively and better written, while the New Statesman's dourness has repelled all but the most ardent readers. The magazine was taken over by cranks and bores, and it became dingy and unfashionable even in left-wing circles. Under Peter Wilby's editorship it revived quite a bit. Now his successor, John Kampfner, wants to take things a step further. The New Statesman's relaunch last week is, in his words, an attempt "to turn radical journalism into a treat".
The relaunch may be seen as part of a slow comeback that began several years ago when the New Statesman was selling some 17,000 copies a week. The rejigged magazine is more attractively designed and printed on better quality paper. The general effect is more welcoming. I am a bit worried about the proliferation of celebrities (Rory Bremner, Stephen Fry, Julian Clary), since for such people journalism is a sideline at which they are unlikely to excel. The not especially clever bores have not been entirely extirpated. Nor was the sight of George Galloway extolling Che Guevara calculated to raise my spirits. Still, it would be churlish to deny this is an improvement.
The rise and fall of weekly magazines has so much to do with fashion. For 25 years, The Spectator has been a fashionable weekly. This has applied whether the Left or the Right was in the ascendant. It got itself talked about. Mr Kampfner surely needs to establish that the best and the cleverest writers are to be found instead in his magazine.
But I fear that even this will not be enough to re-establish the New Statesman as this country's pre-eminent weekly. The Spectator's circulation soared in the early 1990s after its acquisition by the Telegraph Group. Money and marketing skills were put behind the magazine. The New Statesman similarly needs a rich and loving parent, and The Guardian is the obvious candidate. The magazine's present proprietor, the multi-millionaire Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson, is a highly controversial figure who knows little about publishing, though he is to be congratulated for putting money into the relaunch. I can't see the New Statesman making a real comeback while he remains its owner.
Keep track, Quentin!
My colleague Quentin Letts is a brilliant journalist. His parliamentary sketch in the Daily Mail always makes me laugh. But Quentin is not merely funny. He is without doubt Fleet Street's most productive writer. As well as doing the sketch for the Mail, he is also its theatre critic. He has also recently started a Saturday column for the paper under the name Clement Crabbe.
In addition to his various duties for the Mail, Quentin is perfectly capable of taking up his pen for another newspaper. Less well-known is his role in supplying most, if not all, the media diaries in Fleet Street. Quentin regularly produces items for The Guardian's Media Monkey, The Independent on Sunday's media diary, the equivalent diary on the London Evening Standard, and even the new Axegrinder column in Press Gazette.
No media diary could function without Quentin. If the Queen handled out royal warrants to suppliers of diaries, Quentin would have the only one. His occasional partner in this amazingly successful cottage industry is my old and dear friend Frank Johnson, former editor of The Spectator. But whereas Quentin trousers £50 or so for every story published - which has brought him an impressive nest egg over the years - Frank disdains payment.
A danger in writing so much is that one can sometimes forget what one has written. In last Monday's Media Monkey column there was an item about the Clement Crabbe column - the work, as I say, of Quentin himself - satirising The Daily Telegraph's Simon Heffer as "a fictious right-wing loony" called Dr Jonathan Furey. Even admirers of Mr Heffer, such as myself, will have found it difficult not to smile.
Who gave this story to The Guardian? Why, Quentin, of course. Cynics will say that he was merely hoping to bring his new column to the notice of a wider public, but surely there is a more likely explanation: Quentin writes so many different columns, as well as keeping Fleet Street's diaries going, that for a moment it entirely slipped his mind that he happens to be the author of Clement Crabbe.
Can't we stick to the facts?
One of the irritating things about life is that some things that one would like to happen never do. Newspapers have now found a way around this inconvenient truth. Once they were supposed to report news; now they are able to make it up.
On 24 May, the front page of The Times carried a photograph of David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and the lads celebrating a World Cup victory in front of Buckingham Palace. It was, of course, a mock-up. The editor of The Times, which was once a paper of record, thought it permissible to carry a front-page photograph of something that has not happened.
Last Wednesday, the London Evening Standard ran a picture of Tony Blair wearing a red-cross St George's tie. Only the observant reader who read the small print will have noted that this was supposed to show what Mr Blair might look like - he has not yet put on such a tie.
Am I being ridiculously old-fashioned in believing that newspapers should restrict themselves on their news pages to pictures of events that have actually taken place, rather than ones that might?
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