The Media Column: 'The bottom has dropped out of the left-leaning periodical market'
Tuesday 14 September 2004
A change of editorship at a revered political publication might be expected to be of some interest, both in an incestuous media world and at Westminster.
A change of editorship at a revered political publication might be expected to be of some interest, both in an incestuous media world and at Westminster. Yet in terms of causing ripples in either trade, the appointment of Chris McLaughlin as editorial boss of Tribune, the 67-year-old left-wing weekly, is no more than the lightest of leaves cast upon the water. The magazine, although still a feisty irritant to the New Labour leadership, has hit hard times. Only an injection of capital from a consortium of trade unions has kept it afloat.
Although the deep pockets of industrialist MP Geoffrey Robinson head off similar financial dire straits, the equally venerable New Statesman is experiencing many of the problems responsible for Tribune's decline. Whereas the Conservative Spectator continues to enjoy a profile as high as its editor, Boris Johnson - a Tory MP whose political trajectory is expected to be very much skywards - the Staggers is staggering.
It seems that the bottom has dropped out of the left-leaning periodical market, a calamitous decay shortly to be addressed by McLaughlin and already occupying the daily thoughts of Statesman editor Peter Wilby as his fingernails scrabble to retain a grip on a circulation of 24,000.
Wilby reflects on how sales slipped in the wake of the Gulf War, when those who had opposed it and found an articulate ally in the New Statesman discovered their protests totally ineffectual. "Those who became engaged in the debate and marched and read us - and maybe read Tribune, too - were totally disillusioned when nothing happened," he tells me. "They were proved right, we were proved right and so what? Blair is still there - so what's the point of getting involved in politics and trying to understand the issues?" So wearied of politics have many become, says Wilby, that if he now puts the Prime Minister or Gordon Brown on the cover of his magazine, newsstand sales tumble.
Mark Seddon, accomplished outgoing editor of Tribune (I should declare an interest: for more than a decade I worked with Seddon as the magazine's unpaid editorial adviser) expresses similar views: "Two million people who marched against the war realised that they don't make a difference. They feel disenfranchised." But Seddon also rails against the major wholesalers and retail outlets, such as WH Smith, that refuse to stock Tribune because of insufficient demand. As he rightly points out, demand is stimulated by availability; out of sight really is out of mind in a fiercely competitive market.
It is an issue McLaughlin, until recently the political editor of the Sunday Mirror and formerly on the staff of Labour Weekly, intends to address as soon as he takes over at the title founded by such luminaries of the left as Aneurin Bevan, Stafford Cripps, Harold Laski and William Mellor to fight for a socialism that would lead to what Cripps described as "the sane ends of peace and plenty".
Mellor, the first editor, wrote in the launch issue on 1 January 1937: "It is capitalism that has created the distressed areas... It is capitalism that divides our nation into the two nations of rich and poor. Either we must defeat capitalism or we shall be destroyed by it." Neither capitalism, nor Labour governments hostile to Tribune criticism, have yet managed to bring about its destruction. But despite the efforts of a succession of talented and committed editors - Bevan and Michael Foot, still occasionally to be seen stomping its corridors, were perhaps the most eminent - and willing, lowly paid staff journalists (most contributors are not paid at all), it is certainly a distressed area.
McLaughlin points to the overwhelming influx of news and opinion on television and radio as another cause of fewer political activists subscribing to serious magazines, even if The Spectator, with its more eclectic editorial mix, and the monthly Prospect have managed to buck the trend.
But he concedes: "There is what I think is a wrong perception that there isn't a political debate to be had any more. Because of the removal of debate from the Commons and the squashing of dissent by the present Government, people think that their voices don't filter through to the leadership any more. It is up to Tribune to make it otherwise."
It is also surely up to a trade union movement that has rediscovered its vitality to encourage its members to support a publication of such long-time loyalty to the movement, and for Labour constituency parties to help ensure an alternative voice can continue to be heard.
It is 28 years since the then Tribune editor Richard Clements asked the question: "Does the Labour movement really want a socialist press?" Democracy, what's left of it, demands that the answer must be yes.
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