The model of a new statesman?

The fortunes of the `Spectator' and its left-wing opponent have reflected the political climate of the day. Will Ian Hargreaves capitalise on the rise of new Labour to revive the `New Statesman'? By Marianne Macdonald

These are difficult days for the Spectator. The right-wing weekly has, in recent years, found the odds stacked in its favour, both journalistically and politically; in Dominic Lawson it had an editor with an ability to get scoops that caused real ripples, and it had a clutch of talented journalists willing to write articles for love - and profile - rather than money (the Spectator pays peanuts).

As with the Conservatives, however, the tide is turning, and the Spectator, under the less inspiring editorship of Frank Johnson, finds itself at the fag-end of a discredited political ideology. As well as a change of editor, the weekly is stocked with fewer good writers than a year ago, having lost Auberon Waugh, Boris Johnson, and Lawson himself, now editing the Sunday Telegraph. Small wonder that it is losing its self-confidence and, given the level of support Tony Blair enjoys, is in increasing danger of appearing unpleasantly fanatical in tone.

The Spectator's readers, following the loss of Waugh, Johnson et al, have been treated to the softer "charms" of Petronella Wyatt, the bitter musings of Stephen Glover - the co-founder of the Independent whose column is alive with the sound of grinding axes - and Alan Clark, the ex-minister whose first diary under Johnson expounded on the previous editor's "loathsome sneering features, pastily glistening".

Worse news looms on the horizon. The New Statesman, the Spectator's traditional rival on the left, has jerked awake to appoint Ian Hargreaves, 44, a former editor of this paper, to its helm. Hargreaves, with his integrity and intelligence, is an inspired choice for the New Statesman, and one which will give the Spectator serious competition. While no financial plans or details are available (except for Hargreaves's rumoured salary of pounds 100,000), the salient editorial characteristics of this new New Statesman will be "at worst well written and at best sparklingly written", Hargreaves says. "It needs to have witty and satirical writing as well as analytical. It needs to be intellectual, it needs to be capable of interesting and original thought."

The first clear sign that the Spectator is taking the Statesman seriously came from Glover's characteristically sniping comments even before Hargreaves took the post. "Mr Hargreaves is clever and virtuous and competent," wrote Glover. "He is also politically conventional, cautious and seemingly without much sense of humour. These are not qualities guaranteed to revive an ailing magazine." Glover, not known as a daredevil, laugh-a-minute journalist himself, is clearly eager to toe the party line.

But just as it is impossible to distinguish these magazines from their politics, it is impossible not to draw a wider comparison between the success of right- and left-wing journalism in the past 20 years.

The theory has been that left-wing journalism has done poorly because it had no success to draw on in government; that left-wingers were humourless, riddled with factions, lacking the populist touch. Indeed it would be hard, looking at the Labour Party of previous years, to deny this.

In just the same way, of course, the New Statesman has seemed to revel in its inaccessible and earnest offerings - the disquieting frequency of features on referendums or trade unions, for example, its timid covers and student magazine design and the internecine battles between its board members.

This depressing combination whittled away its circulation to less than 20,000 - compared to the Spectator's 50,000-plus - from its peak of 96,000 in 1966 when the New Statesman was required reading for left-of-centre intellectuals. But now the gyre has concluded its cycle. Tony Blair has created a new Labour with a more acceptable ideology; and in Hargreaves the 83-year-old New Statesman has an editor able to echo Blair's achievement in what has been Labour's traditional organ.

He certainly intends to. Yesterday was his first day as editor, but Hargreaves has already finalised wide-ranging plans to turn the Statesman from something resembling a trade union newsletter into a magazine that can take on the Spectator - and win. Out will go what he describes as "the hideous layout", the often tiny print size, the muddled cover design. Out will go the words "& Society" from the masthead, and in will come "new columnists, diarists, writers and human interest features".

Out will also go the old offices at the unfortunately named Perseverance Works in Shoreditch, with the 20-strong staff to take up residence at plush new offices above Victoria tube station, a headquarters which Hargreaves hopes will become a drop-in place for like-minded journalists, thinkers and politicians.

Hargreaves is aiming for the Spectator's throat and if that means sacrificing even his old acquaintance, Tony Blair, and the complaisance of the Labour party, he is willing to do so. Ask him what he would do if evidence came his way of alleged corruption practised by a Labour figure and he says he would publish. "Yes, I would," Hargreaves says, pointing out that he is not a Labour Party member. He has had "extensive" talks with the magazine's new owner, the Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson, on this subject.

"Geoffrey Robinson is not an experienced publisher. He is a distinguished businessman, and he's going to find he gets blamed by his political friends for what's in the New Statesman. But he won't be responsible for what's in it. I will be responsible for that."

Hargreaves is clear: "I have no ambition or appetite for political office. I'm just a journalist, so my response to a story would be journalistic and Geoffrey Robinson knows that." Hargreaves will not only be targeting his friends on the left, however. He wants the Statesman to cover all of politics - "not just the internal struggles of the left, although I will make that the business of the place".

Either way, however, the media world will regard the New Statesman as the direct rival of the Spectator. "A lot of people say to me that the Spectator is now on the way down, but I think it's a pretty strong magazine. It's still got some good writers - like Matthew Parris - and I think Frank is a good writer, although not a particularly interesting political thinker."

The other thing people tend to say to Hargreaves is that they are surprised he agreed to edit the Statesman after having been in charge of more than 1,800 staff as head of the BBC's news and current affairs empire, and then more than 300 as editor of the Independent. But he says it is a pleasant prospect to work with such a small team, and it will mean, if nothing else, that he will see his wife and two children more than in previous incarnations.

"There's a lot of enthusiasm for the New Statesman among journalists, and a lot of goodwill towards it, as there is towards the Independent." Hargreaves adjusts his glasses. "I regarded the Indy as a cause and I regard the New Statesman as a cause. I like causes, but when they're in trouble you need time to turn them around. You have to apply an approach and stick to it."

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