It has taken longer to find a new editor of The Spectator than it did to find a new Pope, but the wait is nearly over. Almost everyone who has followed this saga assumes that the new occupant of this great office will be Matthew d'Ancona, the deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph. If so, it will represent a setback for Andrew Neil, the chief executive of The Spectator, who was generally believed to be scouring the world for an abrasive, right-wing Scotsman in his own image.
Mr d'Ancona, though not obviously a scion of the privileged and allegedly effete class which Mr Neil despises, is certainly the Establishment candidate. He is a fellow of All Souls and the author of theological books. Politically he tills ground to the left of Mr Neil, and has been as friendly towards the Blairite project as he is now towards the Cameroonian one. Unlike Mr Neil, he has shown little, if any, animus towards the forces of privilege which have supposedly been sucking the life-blood out of this country. Indeed, the interesting thing about Mr d'Ancona is that he seldom evinces a strong dislike of anyone or anything.
If this admirable man should be installed as editor, Mr Neil will claim the credit, and announce that The Spectator is in brilliant hands. So it may be, but they are not the hands he would have chosen given free rein. Now that the Scotsman titles have been sold, the magazine over which he presides is no more than a small outlying province of the Barclay brothers' empire, yet he is not allowed to rule even this slim parcel of land on his own. Aidan Barclay, son of Sir David, has taken part in the interviewing of some 12 candidates for the editorship, along with Mr Neil. Mr Barclay has been advised by wise voices of the merits of a respectable candidate such as Mr d'Ancona rather than an obscure ideologue. Murdoch MacLennan, the chief executive of the Barclay-owned Telegraph Group and the ruler of a far greater territory than Mr Neil could dream of, may also have added his counsel.
None of this means that the magazine is bound to be safe from Mr Neil's depredations. Mr d'Ancona - and let me stress that the appointment is not made, and might still go elsewhere - is said by his detractors to be naturally emollient, and likely to defer to the assertive, crinkly-haired Scot. At the very least, Mr Neil will want a bigger say in the editorial affairs of The Spectator.
Last week it was announced that the magazine had acquired two associate editors to improve its political and economic coverage. Fraser Nelson will join The Business (the little-read but quite good Sunday newspaper of which Mr Neil is editor-in-chief) from The Scotsman, where he was a well-regarded political editor; Alastair Heath is already the economics editor of The Business. The point is that both men will be working for Mr Neil, and yet have been given extra responsibilities on The Spectator. He has actually made two important appointments which should by rights come within the purview of the magazine's new editor.
Mr Neil has also announced that The Spectator will be moving from its charming house in Bloomsbury, which it has occupied since 1975, to premises in Westminster. He will be able to pop into the magazine's new office from an adjacent BBC studio, where he is often to be found, or nip across in his limousine from The Business's home in nearby Victoria. If I were Mr d'Ancona, the prospect of daily visitations from Mr Neil might make me think twice as my hand hovered over the contract.
Mr Neil wants to change The Spectator - to make it less clubby and elitist (as he sees it), more global and hard-hitting - perhaps another version of The Economist. Some may think such a transformation a good thing, but it would certainly kill off the existing magazine, which has been pretty successful, gradually adding sales for more than 15 years while many newspapers have been losing circulation. Mr Neil does not like The Spectator as it is. In a letter to The Guardian last week, he derided the perfectly legitimate suggestion of my colleague Cristina Odone in that newspaper that he wanted to destroy the legacy of Boris Johnson, the last editor. The truth is that he did not have much time for Boris, and that Boris did not have much time for him.
Mr d'Ancona's appointment would be well-judged. It is almost certainly not one that Mr Neil would make left to his own devices. The Barclays have seemingly listened to other voices, and we must hope that they continue to do so. For no one should doubt that in Mr Neil's restless and driven mind the transformation - I would say probable destruction - of The Spectator is intended to be the consummation of his life's work.
No news is good news
The really interesting question about the cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed is why some respectable European newspapers chose to publish them while (at the time of writing) all British titles chose not to.
One reason might be that our own newspapers have a more finely developed sense of taste. Given the normally rumbustious character of our Press, this may be hard to accept. Many newspapers are happy to report details that might be offensive to Christians in what, after all, was once supposed to be a Christian country.
So what explains their reticence this time? One possibility is that our papers are more commercially minded than many on the continent. Some of them have a fairly high proportion of Muslim readers, of whom even the most moderate might be appalled by these cartoons. In what is probably the world's most competitive market, no newspaper wants to face a boycott. There is also the risk that some of the many paper shops owned and run by Muslims might somehow discriminate against - or be urged to do so by more extreme Muslims -a newspaper which published the cartoons.
This is not to deny that there may be good reasons for eschewing them. They seem stupid and extreme, and the Danish title which first carried them made a mistake, as it has subsequently admitted. A problem arises now because people want to know what has caused the furore. By withholding the cartoons our papers are in a sense suppressing a piece of news. This presumably explains why the BBC and Channel 4 decided to show fleeting images.
Had it been my decision I suppose I would not have published the pictures out of respect for Muslims, but I would not have been entirely proud of myself. There is a gigantic culture clash here. Free speech is under threat. And there are millions of Muslims who believe that western governments can and should tell newspapers what they can, and cannot, publish.Reuse content