Tina Brown: Tina and the talk show

Ditching magazines for television, Englishwoman in New York Tina Brown is hosting high-flying guests from the worlds of media, movies and politics on her CNBC show Topic A. Raymond Snoddy tunes in

Tina Brown, the British magazine legend whose editorships of such US publishing institutions as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker made her the talk of Manhattan, has chosen to complete the final leg of her great transatlantic adventure by taking American citizenship.

Tina Brown, the British magazine legend whose editorships of such US publishing institutions as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker made her the talk of Manhattan, has chosen to complete the final leg of her great transatlantic adventure by taking American citizenship.

"I think I started to become an American citizen in 9/11," she says. "I became a New Yorker that day, seriously became one, and I felt so strongly at that time and identified with it that I realised then it was only a matter of time before I became an American." Relaxing in the Berkeley Hotel in London's Knightsbridge, the Maidenhead-born journalist is frank about where her national allegiances now rest.

Tina Brown CBE is back in Britain on a specific assignment. The publishing icon has reinvented herself as a television anchor and - application for American citizenship notwithstanding - her Berkshire roots leave her perfectly placed to cover the wedding of the year. Brown stands for the cameras against the backdrop of Windsor Great Park, meeting her good friend Stephen Fry, still in his wedding gear, and coaxing him into minor, charming indiscretions about the reception. Contrary to some press coverage, Fry reveals he has never seen his good friends, the Royals, looking so happy, and the Queen had naturally opened her speech by informing guests that Hedgehunter had won the Grand National. For her part, Brown informs her audience that Prince William was "a heartthrob and impossibly handsome".

For the rebirth of Brown, Topic A, CNBC's hour-long, magazine-style culture and politics programme - which goes out on Monday evenings in the UK - is a perfect vehicle. Explaining the strengths of the show, she says: "I can go with the Pope as the lead and move to a new movie. It's an eclectic mix and I have always loved doing that. I love the chance to be able to give exposure to books, novels and writers that I believe in," says the perfectly turned-out Brown.

"I can pick stuff and say read it, do it, watch it, see it. It's like being an editor. I choose the menu of the show." And, yes, many of the guests are her friends plucked from one of the best address books in New York City. Simon Schama, her friend the historian, is a regular and you can also see the likes of Mort Zuckerman, the owner of the New York Daily News, and, in the early days of the show, her good friend Lord Black, the former owner of The Daily Telegraph, who is still her good friend, despite his troubles with financial regulators. "I've always socialised with my work," says Brown, who has lived in New York for more than 20 years.

She is the most high-profile of an elite band of British female talent (it also includes Anna Wintour and Glenda Bailey) who have blazed a trail in the ruthlessly competitive world of American magazines. As the wife of the revered former Sunday Times editor Sir Harold Evans (who has already taken US citizenship) Brown is also half of one of the most famous media couples to hail from British shores. In New York, Brown is still seen as British.

As well as her friends, she's also had the likes of Tony Blair and Senator John McCain in her New Jersey studio. On a recent show, she interviewed Cate Blanchett and signed off by gushing: "You were terrific in The Aviator."

Brown is the first to acknowledge that Topic A doesn't borrow much from the Jeremy Paxman school of television interviewing. "It's a conversational show," she says. "It's a Sunday night relaxed show and, to be honest, I don't bother with people I am not interested in. I think Cate Blanchett is fantastic, and on my show I don't want to do a crappy starlet who I don't think is any good. The audience of the show is an upscale audience, so I am not going to do movies they are never going to see."

Because CNBC is a cable channel, the audience is obviously small - precise figures are not instantly forthcoming - but she says Topic A has a strong following in Washington, as well as in the media world, and that its audience is growing. The finished product looks very much as if she has translated elements of the magazines she has edited into a television format - quite a neat trick to have pulled off.

Brown admits she was a very reluctant television presenter when she was approached, following the acrimonious collapse in 2002 of Talk Media, the multi-media company set up by film-maker Harvey Weinstein. After such a high-profile failure as a TV host, Brown was not in the mood for another bout of public ridicule.

"At first I said no, and I said no and I said no again," she says. "But then I realised that if they really were offering me an hour on Sunday nights to do something that was pretty much my own and a kind of intelligent show that enabled me to book my own guests with quite a lot of freedom..."

Brown gradually realised that it was a very good and unusual offer, because there were not many shows on US television where you could mix culture and politics. And that is what she likes doing best - looking at politics through the prism of culture and vice versa.

She was so cautious and so afraid of falling flat on her face in the hyper-critical media cauldron of New York that she started off with a quarterly version of the show - a decision that was denounced by some as farcical. But Brown knew she had to learn the techniques of a different medium and, above all, discover that five minutes is a long time in television and that you have to learn to intervene quickly to get the best out of guests. "Eliciting information from people fast is quite an art form and I think that after more than a year I've got pretty good at it," she says.

Her reinvention as a television performer is now virtually complete and Brown has no hankering desire to edit a magazine such as Talk or The New Yorker again. At the age of 50, she has moved on. Cable television, she believes, is the right place for her now, although if she was offered a network show, she would obviously listen. "You don't need it until you are ready," she says. "I think that eventually I could, but right now I feel I am in the right place."

Brown may have emerged from her chrysalis as a television anchor, but she has not left print behind. She writes a weekly column for the style section of the Washington Post and loves the very different process.

"Print is a much more thoughtful medium, and I am used to chewing my pencil and organising my thoughts and rethinking my thoughts, and then erasing them and then get another thought," she says. "With TV, you have to come out of the box with a clear view."

In one recent column for the Post, she wrote that we are now in "the eggshell era", with everyone always under surveillance wherever we go; with paparazzi always looking for glamour goddesses picking their noses. Then there are the bloggers, who she believes are the new Stasi.

"All the timidity this engenders, all this watching your mouth, has started to feel positively un-American," wrote the woman who is about to become American. The bloggers didn't like being compared to the notorious East German secret police and one responded: "That's right the media actually has to pay attention to facts, or they'll get caught out. Oh, the horror. Here's a tip Tina - if you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. Unlike most of us bloggers, you get paid for the stuff you write."

Although she loves writing a newspaper column, Brown is quite gloomy about the fate of print. "Print is in a very safe, boring place at the moment - it's under threat from every conceivable angle," says Brown, who notes that five years on from the dot.com collapse, the internet is really starting to hit the finances of newspapers.

Even the mighty Washington Post is, she says, losing circulation month after month as more and more of the younger generation get their news online. "I am a magazine junkie, but I have to say I am downloading much more individual articles rather than going out to buy the magazines," says Brown, who believes publications are being damaged by the internet because of the absence of a workable financial online model.

What does Sir Harry think? "He thinks it's a real transition, a real problem, and newspapers seem to be the most damaged," she says. "I think we are going to get to a situation where you will have to accept a much smaller number of that core newspaper audience and another economic model has to make the rest of it viable."

But what does she think now of her controversial history in magazines. Is she hurt by the jibes that she turned an august American literary institution, The New Yorker, into "a version of People magazine" as some have alleged, and was Talk a step too far - an inevitable failure waiting to happen?

To answer that, she says that she sees herself as more "the change agent" - the person hired to fix things. "Fixing it means some people will get fired and that's what I was there to do, and people are still out there writing about it," she admits. The writers and editors she brought in are still there and, she says, the changes she made have not been reversed.

As for Talk, that is a very different story. The magazine could have worked, she insists, but not with the management she had. "It needed another three years and a lot of money and a lot of patience, and no one had it," says Brown, who does concede it was partly crowded out by the very structures she had put in place at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

She does also admit now that the notorious launch party at the Statue of Liberty got out of hand. It was going to be a more measured affair in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ruled it could not be held on a city site because the launch cover story was an interview with Hillary Clinton and she was a political rival at the time. The party had to be moved to a Federal site, such as the Statue of Liberty. Then Weinstein decided he was going to have the biggest party ever seen in New York with every movie star in the world, because he was not going to be told what to do by "that prick".

"It was an amazing, great night," Brown purrs with recollected pleasure, before adding: "It was obviously overkill; setting me up."

Although she is by location and emotion a New Yorker now, Brown is still very interested in the British press, although she has lost touch with a new generation of editors and writers. "I look at The Independent," she says, "and I think, 'Wow, it's great. How did it happen?' I think The Guardian is wonderful. I don't really look at The Times and the Telegraph - actually, I like the Telegraph and am sorry Conrad is going to wind up in jail, because he was a very good proprietor."

Brown ostentatiously stayed at Lord Black's party in a New York restaurant (when he was promoting his book on Roosevelt), while many of those who had accepted his lavish hospitality walked past to go to a party being given in an adjacent room by former US Treasury secretary Robert Rubin.

"It was a painful moment, so I stuck firmly in Conrad's room, because I don't think you should do that to someone in trouble," she says. But a party is one thing. If Lord Black were to go to jail, would she visit him there? "I will certainly visit Conrad," Brown insists. "I am fond of Conrad."

Apart from Topic A and the newspaper column, Brown now plans to add a third arm to her media activities - she has signed a contract with Doubleday to write a book on the legacy of Princess Diana. She covered both Diana's wedding and funeral for NBC's Today Show, where she is a frequent guest.

"I have followed that story for so long, it seemed to me like a great way to draw a line under it," she explains. "The funeral was a seminal event in 24-hour news. It was the first participation culture moment because, in a way, the crowd became the story."

Apart from that, if any really rich media magnate was prepared to fund a new upmarket daily tabloid newspaper in New York she would accept the editorship in a flash. She just wouldn't be able to help herself - not that she thinks this is at all likely to happen.

Slightly more realistically, she thinks it would be fun to edit something like an American version of The Spectator in New York. "There isn't really anything like the British Spectator, which I adore, in the US," says Brown.

As her good friend Conrad no longer owns The Spectator, an American version seems very unlikely, although she rates the man running it - Andrew Neil, another print journalist who has made the transition to television. "I think he is very good on television," she says. "I like his abrasiveness

Brown has one other big fantasy - this time a story, rather than a new publication. When she talks on her show about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, she describes her as "beautiful; sexy" but with "harshness and even ferocity in the gaze". At a bar in the Berkeley, Brown ponders what would happen if the Republicans were to choose Ms Rice to run against Hillary Clinton for the Presidency next time?

"There is only one thing better than the first woman President of the United States and that's the first black woman President of the United States," she says, with a glint in her eye.

Now, that really would be Topic A.

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