The new boy at the 'Statesman': is he man enough?

Peter Wilby tells Sholto Byrnes that yes, he was pushed from the editor's chair but no, he wouldn't dream of suggesting his replacement had a hand in it. But the conspiracy theorists won't go away
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On a trip to the Middle East desert earlier this year a group of journalists gazed up at the 100ft sand dune they were due to snowboard down. Only one completed the hard climb to the top and then executed a perfect descent - John Kampfner.

On a trip to the Middle East desert earlier this year a group of journalists gazed up at the 100ft sand dune they were due to snowboard down. Only one completed the hard climb to the top and then executed a perfect descent - John Kampfner.

Two months on and Kampfner, 42, has scaled another summit. Last week he was appointed to the editorship of the New Statesman, following such distinguished names of the left as John Freeman, Richard Crossman and Anthony Howard.

Kampfner's latest triumph was at the expense of another, however. Peter Wilby, a former editor of The Independent on Sunday, had edited the Statesman since 1998, maintaining its circulation at 25,000 and returning the debt-ridden publication to profit. But on Tuesday morning he was called by the NS's proprietor, the Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson, and summoned to the Thistle Hotel at Victoria station. Over a cup of coffee, the much-admired Wilby was told that he had had seven years as editor and that it was time for a change. His successor, said Robinson, was to be Kampfner, the Statesman's political editor of two years' standing.

The next day the New Statesman's staff gathered at 6pm to be informed of the news. After going out for drinks with his team, Wilby returned to the office and stayed until 4am, emailing columnists and contributors to let them know about the change. "I can't deny that some 'cups of tea' were taken," said a sore-headed Wilby on Thursday morning.

Although sad to have left, Wilby is gracious about the manner of his departure. "It was not my decision to go," he says, "but I can't complain that I haven't had a fair deal. I am 60." He points out that his tenure as editor was the longest since that of Kingsley Martin, who edited the NS from 1931-1960. He will not criticise either his proprietor or his successor, whom he has wished "every success" for the future and has said will make "a fine editor".

But others associated with the Statesman are keen to speak out, casting doubt on Kampfner's abilities as an editor and suggesting that he had campaigned for the job behind Wilby's back. Robinson has offered the NS editorship elsewhere at least twice in the past two years, and stories circulated that the highly ambitious Kampfner had advised his proprietor that the answer to his search might lie close to home.

"If these rumours are true," says one senior NS insider, "then to try to undermine your editor like that is disgraceful. After a general election is a natural time to change editor, but John was in place. He could have waited." Kampfner confirms that he did discuss the magazine's future with Robinson. "Geoffrey had me to lunch in the House of Commons once, and we had one discussion in the office. But nothing improper was said." Another insider is unconvinced. "John has got there through sheer indefatigable pushiness because he will not take no for an answer."

Cristina Odone, the Statesman's deputy editor until last December, says she is "dismayed" at Wilby's departure. "The Statesman was out of the red for the first time in a generation and it was punching considerably above its weight. Peter was irreverent, mischievous and a fabulous writer. John is very bright and has written a good book [Blair's Wars], but I just don't know if he has that talent."

Rod Liddle, Kampfner's former editor at Radio 4's Today programme, where he was political correspondent (he has also worked for the Financial Times and The Daily Telegraph), is more confident. He describes Kampfner as "a first-rate journalist who breaks stories". "He is a genuine maverick, independent spirit, which is just what the New Statesman needs. What it also needs is breadth and humour, and I hope he possesses that too."

Humour is not a quality the rather earnest Statesman has always been noted for. When one contributor requested that certain light-hearted passages not be cut from his copy, Wilby acceded. "We don't get many jokes in the New Statesman," he said. This is in contrast with its notional rival on the right, The Spectator, whose combination of current affairs analysis and provocative and amusing writing is generally acknowledged to have reached a new plateau under its present editor, Boris Johnson. (This is despite rumours that Geordie Greig, the editor of the society magazine Tatler, is being lined up to replace Johnson - a scenario that sits oddly with early reports that the Spec's new owners, the Barclay Brothers, felt that the magazine lacked gravitas.)

The supposed rivalry matters because the Statesman remains at around one third of The Spectator's circulation. Some feel that in a long period of Labour government the situation should be reversed, given that the Statesman is a magazine firmly rooted in the party. It has, however, been far from a slavish supporter of New Labour. Its record under Wilby has been one of regular opposition to the government and of particular criticism of Tony Blair's alliance with President Bush.

Old Labour applauded Wilby's approach, with which Robinson never interfered, whatever difficulties it caused him with his parliamentary colleagues. New Labour figures implied that the Statesman had become an irrelevance. They deplored self-consciously controversial cover stories such as "A Kosher Conspiracy?", about the supposed influence of the pro-Israeli lobby in Britain, which was accompanied by a Star of David piercing the union flag. Other media figures, such as GQ's editor Dylan Jones, claimed it was no longer a "must-read".

Beyond making clear that in any Labour leadership election he expects the Statesman to support his close ally Gordon Brown, Robinson gives his editor a free hand. But he sees the core of the readership as being Old Labour and will be anxious for this constituency not to be alienated by any change of direction at the NS. This could pose problems for Kampfner if he wants to appeal to the "fashionable progressives" who one insider says ought to be reading the magazine but aren't. "It's simply not read enough outside the Westminster village, and not enough there either," he says.

Kampfner has much to think about after a change which was sudden for him, as well as for Wilby. Although he was informally approached by Geoffrey Robinson two days before the general election, Kampfner was only offered the position on Monday. He has had to withdraw from a radio documentary on Europe he was due to record next week and has put a new book, on Blair and the EU, on indefinite hold. While busy taking up the editor's reins at very short notice, he is quick to commend his predecessor. "Peter has been totally supportive, decent and generous in helping me and in dealing with what has happened," he says, going on to praise Wilby's "courageous agenda" of "fiercely defending our editorial independence".

After a break - he says he aims to "sleep for two weeks" - Wilby will return to the NS as a columnist. The magazine's new editor, meanwhile, says he wants to "build on its cutting edge and continue with what I hope will be a higher profile". Anyone who thinks that Kampfner's Statesman will be more of a friend to the government may be in for a surprise. "There is a constant requirement to outrage, in the best sense of the word," he says. Kampfner certainly faces a challenge. Time to put on his desert boots.

EVOLUTION OF THE VOICE OF THE LEFT

Early years: Founded in 1913 by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the Statesman rapidly established itself as a leading voice on the left. Contributors included Harold Laski, G D H Cole and Leonard Woolf. The magazine took over and incorporated other titles such as The Nation, The Athenaeum, and The Weekend Review. By 1959, just before the end of Kingsley Martin's 29-year editorship, the NS had a sale of 100,000.

60s and 70s: Two Labour ministers, John Freeman and Richard Crossman, were among the editors, as well as journalistic luminaries Paul Johnson and Anthony Howard. Although circulation was declining, the magazine was an influential, if critical, friend to Harold Wilson's Labour party. Its writers included Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, James Fenton and Christopher Hitchens.

80s and early 90s: The age of Thatcher was an uncertain period for the NS. When the former Sunday Times Insight editor Bruce Page took over, he ripped up the style book and committed the NS to investigative journalism. Under Stuart Weir (87-91) the concentration was more on extra-parliamentary politics, while his successor, Steve Platt, turned the NS into a humour-free, streetfighting publication with limited appeal.

Late 90s and 2000s: The millionaire Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson bought the Statesman in 1996 from the independent trust that had hitherto run it, rescuing the publication from mounting debts. Under Ian Hargreaves it became a cheerleader for New Labour, and circulation rose from a low of the mid-teens to 25,000. It returned to a more critical position when Peter Wilby became editor in 1998, restoring, as Anthony Howard put it, "the apostolic succession".

DIARY

Free-range Harry?

The prospect of Sir Harold Evans taking over the late Alistair Cooke's Letter From America slot on Radio 4 intrigues Cooke's biographer, Nick Clarke. "I had the impression that the BBC thought they couldn't replace him," says the World at One presenter. Clarke recalls his discovery that Cooke attributed his ease behind the microphone to sessions of Freudian analysis he underwent during the 1940s, when he learnt about free association.

"Perhaps it would help Harold Evans if he went on the couch and let his brain range free too," suggests Clarke kindly.

Big Ben strikes again

Over at Evans's old paper The Times, former foreign correspondent and political columnist Ben Macintyre has had enough of life as an executive. He is quitting his post as editor of the Saturday magazine to return to a roving brief writing colour pieces. Will other writers' noses be put out of joint now that one of editor Robert Thomson's favourites is in their midst?

Backing a dud

Freebie of the week: our travel desk was still puzzling over the plastic watering cans sent to it by the Stansted Express when a greetings card arrived from the Yorkshire Tourist Board. Inside, the Travel Editor was kindly informed that a £1 bet had been placed on his behalf on a horse running at last week's May Meet at York. While we are not quite sure of the morality of this, the Travel Editor would still like to know what went wrong with Cape Royal - the horse he discovered he was backing - in the 1.30 on Thursday.

Credit where it's due...

We note the irony of the problems facing the publisher of the magazine Credit Today - as reported in the latest Press Gazette - which has run up debts of more than £500,000. Ah well. Any backers out there for "Bankruptcy Weekly"?

John back on the warpath

John Lloyd's crusade to reverse the dumbing down of the press seemed to have run out of steam, but he's back to his task in the June issue of Prospect with another cri de coeur, based on his reading of Piers Morgan's diaries. This time the former New Statesman editor's ire is directed more at politicians, whose "conspiring in their own trivialisation is one of the great untold stories of our times". Good on you, John.

The hardest word

He's the man who brought us TV low points such as Jade Goody naked and John McCririck in his undies, but Big Brother supremo Peter Bazalgette has revealed that his posh upbringing means he has struggled for years to use an expression his mother believed vulgar. He tells Word magazine: "Even now a sort of frisson of wickedness goes down my spine every time I force myself to say 'toilet'."

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