Total Politics: 'This is not going to be some Tory rag'
Conservative blogger Iain Dale explains to Andy McSmith why he's shifting his focus from the internet to print by launching 'Total Politics'
Monday 23 June 2008
In the contest between the blogosphere and the printed press, you might expect Iain Dale to be a leading champion of those mythical folk in striped pyjamas who tap away on keyboards in the loneliness of their bedrooms. For nearly six years, he has been a relentless blogger. There is only one political blog in the UK with a readership to beat Dale's, and that is by his friend and fellow Tory Guido Fawkes, whose contempt for the "dead tree press" knows no bounds.
But a lot of trees will have to die in the service of a new magazine that, from today, will be dropping through the letter boxes of every elected politician in the country, plus a scattering of the unelected.
Called Total Politics, it is being distributed free to all MPs, MEPs, peers, political journalists, members of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies and all councillors down to district level – a target audience of around 23,000, all entered into a database that is going to require constant attention. The founder and main shareholder in this venture is that compulsive blogger, Iain Dale.
Dale is well known as a seat-seeking Tory, who played a central role in David Davis's bid to become party leader, and had his eyes on Maidstone, the safe Tory seat being vacated when Ann Widdecombe leaves Parliament.
One of the magazine's financial backers is Michael Ashcroft, the right wing multi-millionaire who bankrolls the Conservative Party. Total Politics has its office in Ashcroft's basement, next to the Liberal Democrat headquarters in Cowley Street, Westminster. Ashcroft owns 25 per cent of the magazine, Iain Dale and his partner (with whom he recently went through a civil ceremony) own 65 per cent; the remaining fifth is owned by "various backers".
This Ashcroft/Dale axis prompted suspicion about the nature of the product, even prompting 34 Labour MPs and two Lib Dems to sign a Commons motion tabled by the Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle inviting colleagues to chuck their free copies of Total Politics in the bin.
"I knew it would be controversial," Dale says. "If you want to sell a magazine as being politically independent, probably the two people you should not have involved are Michael Ashcroft and me. It's incredible the number of people who think he must stand over my shoulder the whole time, but I have seen him four times, and two of those were in the street.
"I took the view that if someone like Michael Ashcroft has decided that this is something that can make a profit, and has decided to invest his money in it, that has to be a good thing. It is a completely commercial agreement. They expect to get a return on their investment."
At a personal level , Dale is not looking for a seat in the Commons any more – at least not this year – and mildly regrets some of the 'cheerleading' he has done on his blog for the Conservative Party. His first commitment is to make Total Politics work as a commercial proposition. And he is emphatic that it is not a Tory magazine, although it is owned by Tories. Its editor, Sarah MacKinlay, is the daughter of a Labour MP, its political editor is a Lib Dem.
"Frankly, if anybody wishes to believe that this is going to be some sort of Tory rag, there is nothing I can do to dissuade them until they see the magazine, and make their own judgement," Dale says. "I defy anyone to look through the magazine and find any party political agenda at all – apart from that part of our mission statement where we say that we want to produce a magazine that is unremittingly positive about politics.
"I think a lot of people in politics are fed up with the fact that there is so much negativity around. We will provide a magazine that looks at political campaigning in a way that others don't. It's the sort of thing that unites all the readers. All elected politicians have something in common, they want to get re-elected; so if we can provide them with new ideas, new examples of things that have happened in other countries, they are going to be interested."
This is an interesting statement, because if there is anyone who is unremittingly negative about politicians and the political process, it is surely Iain Dale's anarchistic friend Paul Staines, who blogs as Guido Fawkes. But although they are friends, they are not political twins.
"I think people believe that we meet in a secret huddle every week. I have only met him probably a dozen times in my life," Dale says. "He has got his own agenda. I understand some of it, I even share some of it, but I don't agree with his constant trashing of the mainstream media. I've never taken this view that the internet and the mainstream media can't live perfectly well alongside each other."
The magazine has got off to a creditable start by getting an interview with Gordon Brown, which reveals – among other trivia – that the last film to make him cry was Hotel Rwanda.
It was secured, through great persistence, by Sarah MacKinlay, who was slotted into a gap in the Prime Minister's diary so small that on her way out of his office, she had to be hidden in a broom cupboard to keep her out of the way of the next world leader entering the building.
Of perhaps more significance to the magazine's long-term health is about 18 pages of advertising, none of it given away or sold for peppercorn, Dale insists. The Total Politics advertising rates are cheaper than those charged by its most obvious rival, The House Magazine, which is distributed free to MPs, but not to councillors.
"If we get a good number of subscriptions and a good number of news-stand sales, that's the icing on the cake for us," says Dale of a magazine which the public can buy for £3.99.
"Success or failure of Total Politics will depend on the advertising." Despite some initial anxiety when the advertising did not seem to be materialising, Dale adds: "I now have confidence that it could work as a commercial entity."
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