The battles of Hastings

It's no coincidence that the first weekend the editor of the `Evening Standard' stayed in town, was the time the countryside came to London, reports Kim Sengupta
At lunchtime on Sunday 1 March, many readers and staff of the Evening Standard were no doubt moaning about the difficulties of moving around London thanks to the rustic invasion from the shires. "It's just so inconvenient," one can imagine them saying as they picked on their rocket salads and sun-dried tomatoes, "we did so want to see the Bonnard exhibition at the Tate today."

Max Hastings was also in town that day, yomping along with his 6ft 5in stride alongside 200,000 others on the march for the countryside. It is believed to be the first time in living memory that the editor of the London Evening Standard has been in London at the weekend.

It is one of journalism's little ironies that the man in charge of the capital's own local newspaper, and whose endorsement will prove crucial in deciding who gets to be London's new mayor, does not seem to like the place over much.

It is nothing personal, it is just that Mr Hastings, man of action and distinguished war correspondent, would much rather be casting a line over the Helmsdale in Sutherland, or shooting snipe in Ireland. If those perfect options were not available, he would simply prefer to spend his Saturdays and Sundays at his country home in Berkshire.

It is said that Simon Jenkins, former Times editor, now Standard columnist and proud urbanite, once drove Mr Hastings around London on a Sunday and proved to his surprise that the city was not just a gigantic pied a terre, with everyone disappearing to the country for the weekend. This is denied by the editor: "An apocryphal story I am afraid," he chortles. "Not even the best efforts of Simon Jenkins and his considerable charm would have persuaded me to be in London at weekends."

Sitting at Associated Newspapers' gleaming offices in High Street Kensington, Mr Hastings reflects on how his lifestyle and views may have been regarded by his underlings at the Standard and his previous newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. "Look, I am sure most of my staff here feel my views are barmy. And I am sure it was the same at the Telegraph. But there must be some some privileges in being an editor."

Would that really have been the case at the Telegraph, that bastion against change, where there is fond nostalgia for an England where even the newsagents were white? "Yes, even at the Telegraph my views on the countryside would not have been particularly typical," says Mr Hastings. "Maybe among the leader writers, but I am sure a lot of the others, people like the sub- editors, thought it very odd."

It would be easy but wrong to portray Mr Hastings as simply an apologist for the hunting and shooting lobby, and the vested interests of farmers. And he accepts that his core readership is likely to be ambivalent about or even antipathetic towards rural interests. But there is, he holds, an important moral issue at stake.

"I am sure foxes don't want to be hunted," he says. "Hunting is not like shooting or fishing, it is a total way of life. I am sure it is the most boring way of life possible. But they have got the right to be boring. But I am not saying everything is right here; I know people get angry about the subsidies the farmers get; obviously there is need for reform.

"I wrote about the march in the paper, but then Simon Jenkins also wrote a piece with a much more sceptical attitude to the whole thing. We decided to cover the countryside march in depth because it was a London event. I know most Londoners are not particularly interested in countryside issues, or particularly sympathetic to it. I approached it from a libertarian point of view. I believe the minorities have a right to pursue their interests as long as they do not harm others." (Obviously humans, not animals.)

The Evening Standard is not ignoring its readership, says the editor. He points out that acres of space is given over to covering the London scene ("although it is not something I would take advantage of myself") and the result can be seen in the rising circulation figures.

It was the Standard's alarmingly declining circulation which led Associated's chairman, Sir David English, to poach Mr Hastings from the Telegraph in l995 for a pay package of about pounds 400,000 - a significant rise from his salary of pounds 184,000. After reaching the giddy heights of more than half a million under Paul Dacre, one of a chain of Associated executives given stewardship of the paper, sales had been drifting downwards.

Mr Hastings' move from Canary Wharf to Kensington was viewed with surprise by many who saw the Telegraph as his natural home, and where he had spent 10 relatively happy and commercially successful years. But senior executives there say it was only a matter of time before he would have been at odds with owner Conrad Black.

The politics of Canadian Mr Black were, like those of his Australian/American rival Rupert Murdoch, robustly more to the right than the pragmatic, moderate and socially conscious school of Toryism Mr Hastings belonged to. In particular Mr Hastings did not share his proprietor's inherent dislike of Europe. After an election defeat, the feeling among the Tory idealogues at Canary Wharf was the Conservative party would shift significantly to the right and follow a Euro-sceptic agenda. Mr Hastings would have found the prospect of steering the Telegraph in that direction distasteful.

Mr Hastings's arrival at Kensington was greeted with some trepidation. He paid an impromptu visit to the paper's City section, and afterwards City editor Ian Griffiths gathered his staff around to say there was good news, and bad news. "The good news was that he thought sport was the worst section of the paper. The bad news was that he thought we were crap, too." Mr Griffiths was sacked soon afterwards, along with sports editor Brian Alexander, while others were moved around. There was not the expected Glorious 12th type massacre, but people were left with a sense of unease. There was also some bewilderment when the editor banished the use of a number of words from the paper, including, for some reason, "toilet".

Mr Hastings regularly goes shooting with, among others, Rocco Forte and Michael Green of Carlton. There was some criticism that when Mr Forte was fighting his losing battle against a hostile takeover bid by Granada and Gerry Robinson, the City pages were less than neutral. But to balance that, Victor Lewis-Smith indulges in his own version of blood sport over Carlton TV, and the editor has been staunch in his defence of his television critic.

The Evening Standard faces problems in the future, along with many other papers. Less commuters are buying it, more people are using their own cars to get to the workplace, and that workplace is beginning to be placed more and more at greenfield sites in the outer fringes of London in places like Essex. This would be a real challenge for Mr Hastings. He may have made the adjustment from psyche of the shires to that of Kensington, but how will he cope with Romford man?