The whole thing was a demeaning stunt. But why should Boris worry?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

My favourite fact of the week was the sales figure for The Spectator at a branch of WH Smith's in Liverpool: seven copies. There are many other towns and cities in the country where the political weekly sells as few copies. There are millions of the population who have not heard of it, millions more who have not read it. Why then is it so famous, if indeed it is?

It is necessary to qualify the question because The Spectator is the creature of a self-styled in-group, with a sort of outer ring of those who would very much like to be members of the in-group and content themselves with sitting on the lawn, gazing admiringly at those inside.

This is all very curious in 2004 Britain. While the political and arts weekly is long established, and while titles espousing causes taken up by few have always been around, there is so much about The Spectator which is out of tune with its times that its prominence in the national debate is hard to explain.

It cannot just be Boris, for Boris is quite young and relatively new upon the scene. The fact that he appears popular, and is versatile, amusing and intelligent, cannot be the reason The Spectator is written about elsewhere so much more than would appear justified, just like Boris himself. It sells around 65,000 copies a week, for a high price of £2.50, and it makes a profit.

Even BB (before Boris), the 176-year-old Spectator had been making waves. It has been edited by such prominent Tory figures as the young Iain Macleod, Ian Gilmour and Nigel Lawson. The magazine engaged in debate of the issues facing the Conservative Party, which was usually in power.

It has been under the ownership of The Telegraph, Conrad Black's Telegraph, that the notion of The Spectator as a club - and a rather exclusive one at that - has developed, and been nurtured by its members. Frank Johnson, now Daily Telegraph columnist, and Dominic (son of Nigel) Lawson, now Sunday Telegraph editor, have edited the magazine.

It was around The Spectator that the concept of the young fogey developed. Here was a group of (mostly) men of old-fashioned appearance, views and habits who looked, behaved and thought much older than they were. They considered it fashionable, and while they defined the fashion it has to be said that it had a following.

It did not matter that it was small because it had the priceless support of that most effective of public relations machines, the media village. So a certain kind of journalist, of a certain educational background and a certain self-esteem, gravitated towards The Spectator, prized an invitation to its parties, and would require little financial reward for appearing in its columns. In short, the chattering classes liked to chat around The Spectator.

It was not only journalists of the right. There were plenty on the left who found the company amusing, much more amusing that the serious men and women of the left with their New Statesman, their Prospect and their Tribune who were more worried about their causes than their position in media society. The Spectator was often public school and snobbish, taking lines which even the present Conservative Party has dropped, but at least it was capable of wit, of not taking it itself too seriously, of good writing and of thinking against the grain. Add a few scoops, provide safe haven for Today outcasts such as Rod Liddle and Andrew Gilligan, a retirement home for Paul Johnson, publication therapy for the bigoted Taki, and you have a talked-about (by the "right" people) magazine.

Add Boris and you have a road show, which took the M6 and M52 to Liverpool the other day, to apologise. The phone-in public loved it, because they like a bit of a toff with a bit of a sense of humour who bumbles and stumbles. Most of all they were taken in by the apology. The whole thing was a dreadful stunt, and demeaning to Ken Bigley.

But The Spectator and Boris had scored again. Endless pages in the papers. Endless footage on screen. And endless discussion and phone-in on radio. Led of course by The Daily Telegraph, owners of The Spectator, with half of page three, including a six-column picture of Boris, devoted to the Liverpool "meet very few of the people" visit. And on Friday, in the Telegraph, a huge trail for a big piece "on the family knack of upsetting people". The family? The Johnsons. The author? Rachel Johnson, Boris's sister. You wouldn't understand in Liverpool.


It is possible that come next month there will be no match reports or photographs of Premiership or Football League games as a result of the deadlock between the newspapers and Football DataCo, which "owns" the intellectual property rights to professional football. Strange to see intellectual property and professional football spoken of in the same breath.

As I sat observing the intellectual property on display at Rotherham last Tuesday night (Plymouth Argyle were in town) I wondered at the extraordinary greed of modern football. It isn't just the players' wages; every aspect of the game commands a price, or so DataCo thinks. The latest is fantasy football. The rulers of football now want to charge newspapers for publishing football data in their fantasy games. This newspaper will probably be charged for my gratuitous use of the word Rotherham in this item.

Rotherham are in the highest Football League division, albeit at the bottom. Their gate on Tuesday was a little over 5,000. They need every mention they can get in the Rotherham Advertiser, which does its best to generate interest in the club.

The idea of Football DataCo wanting to charge the paper for use of the club's intellectual property is so manifestly absurd that it makes one wonder about DataCo's intellectual property. Or is it just playing fantasy take-the-mickey?

Peter Cole is Professor of Journalism at the University of Sheffield.