Strictly boardroom: time is called on Cocktail Club at 'The Spectator'

'The Spectator' has lost its guardians. Does the press need the Board?
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The Independent Online

One of the first moves of the new owners of The Spectator has been to dismiss the magazine's independent directors. Not all media organisations feel the need for mechanisms to protect themselves against their own worst instincts. Some still do, though - notably The Times, with its shadowy "national directors", who in their case are in place to curb any unacceptable proprietorial excesses (even if they have never actually plucked up the courage to do so).

One of the first moves of the new owners of The Spectator has been to dismiss the magazine's independent directors. Not all media organisations feel the need for mechanisms to protect themselves against their own worst instincts. Some still do, though - notably The Times, with its shadowy "national directors", who in their case are in place to curb any unacceptable proprietorial excesses (even if they have never actually plucked up the courage to do so).

At The Spectator, the principal editorial role of the board was to ensure the maintenance of an identifiably Conservative line. That was why it included such bastions of the right as the former Cabinet ministers Lord Tebbit and Francis Maude, business moguls Lord King of Wartnaby and Sir Patrick Sheehy, and the financial journalist Christopher Fildes.

As Algy Cluff, the ousted chairman, puts it: "The Spectator is an iconoclastic magazine of the right. Its job is to heave bricks through windows, but only those windows on the left side of the house."

The Barclay brothers' own politics are not thought to differ much from The Spectator's, and in any case they have no track record of interfering with editorial policy on any of their titles.

Cluff inaugurated the Board when he bought the magazine in 1981. He continued as chairman of it when he sold out to Fairfax, the Australian media company, in 1985, and then when the title was bought by Conrad Black's Telegraph group. The Board met four times a year to add some muscle to the brick-heaving and to discuss the magazine's finances with its publisher, Kimberley Quinn. The meetings took place at 6pm, the cocktail hour. Cluff points out that The Spectator was losing £1m a year when the first Board was appointed, and now makes £1m profit. "I think it added integrity to the magazine," he said. "It's always useful for an editor to have to explain himself to a board.

"But I don't want to engage in sour grapes. The Barclays have the right to remove the independent directors. Theirs is a private group and their culture doesn't allow for them."

Cluff insists it was a coincidence that the new owners performed their demolition job in the wake of the fracas over The Spectator's anti-Liverpool editorial and the public humiliation of the editor, Boris Johnson, by Michael Howard, the Conservative leader. The Barclays did not mention the incident in their letter to Board members announcing their dismissal, though Cluff raised it in his reply.

"I expressed my concern at the problem Boris has if Michael Howard is to appoint himself editor-in-chief of The Spectator. It's very difficult to say it's an independent magazine if the editor's going to be disciplined by the Conservative Party for controversial articles it doesn't like." The problem arises because Johnson doubles as Opposition spokesman on the arts. "Something will have to change," Cluff believes. "I think Boris is a terrific editor as well as a celebrity, but he's got a difficult decision to make."

The Board, had it survived, would probably have raised this with Johnson at its next meeting - so its disbanding may prolong his tenure unless he chooses to quit voluntarily. Though dramatic in its scale, The Spectator house-cleaning is consistent with changes already made in the governance of the major portion of the Barclays' acquisition, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph. The managing director, Hugo Drayton, and the finance director, Niamh O'Donnell-Keenan, have already gone, and more may follow. As at The Spectator, The Telegraph editorial regime remains largely intact so far, but, with the circulation of both the daily and Sunday papers in decline, changes may not be far off.

The abolition of The Spectator's Board leaves The Times as one of the few papers with a group of directors specifically charged with protecting the editor from proprietorial or other interference. Its first national directors were appointed in 1966 when the Canadian Roy Thomson bought the title from the Astor family.

According to the late John Grigg, the official historian of The Times, Thomson's "brashness, his philistinism and his unashamedly commercial attitude to newspapers all grated". The four national directors were appointed at his suggestion, to keep those failings in check and allow the editor to edit free from proprietorial pressure. In the event Thomson proved a benign - though ultimately unsuccessful - owner.

When Rupert Murdoch bought The Times in 1981 he increased the number of national directors to six, and gave them specific powers to consider appeals from editors if they thought they were being subject to pressure from him. However, they were unable to prevent the high-profile dismissal of Harold Evans, first editor of Murdoch's Times, after only a year in the job, during which he complained of frequent subtle and not-so-subtle interventions by the proprietor over editorial policy.

The national directors are still in place although, since Evans, there is no record of their having been called on by an editor to protect him from Murdoch. There is a vacancy, following the death of Baroness Brigstocke. The other five consist of three representatives of the great and good - Lady Eccles, Lord Marlesford and Sir Robin Mountfield - and two former journalists, John Gross and Rupert Pennant-Rea.

The Guardian is in a different position from other national newspapers in that it has no conventional proprietor, but is owned by the Scott Trust, charged with ensuring that the paper survives in a recognisable form, in accordance with its independent tradition.

Liz Forgan, chair of the Scott Trust, explains that it does not seek to dictate policy to the editor, Alan Rusbridger - who is indeed a member of it. Last week he announced that he is considering switching the paper's support from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. "That's none of our business," she tells me briskly. However, the Trust has the ultimate power to dismiss the editor in the unlikely event of his being perceived as moving too far from the paper's traditions.

Whatever the thinking behind the dismissal of The Spectator's board, there will certainly be a reduction in the cocktails bill.

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