What Prospect of serious success?

A new political monthly is about to go where others have foundered. Good journalism will be the key to its survival, says Andrew Marr
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The Independent Online
Brits don't read clever magazines. Brits don't buy political weeklies like they used to. Brits are a fallen race, intellectually challenged people who struggle with shallow newspaper reviews, and wallow in mounds of glossy Sunday pap. That's what Brits are like.

This is, only mildly caricatured, becoming a widespread view about our national reading habits. It is shared by writers and editors in Washington, and widely held in London, too. The New Statesman is down. Marxism Today and Encounter are dead. We have no equivalent to New Republic, Harpers, Atlantic Monthly, Mother Jones or the other US political publications.

Now along comes David Goodhart, on leave from the Financial Times, a lean, determined and serious-looking man who exhibits few symptoms of mental ill-health but who has nevertheless thought up, raised money for, recruited for and is now about to publish, an expensive, upmarket, high- brow monthly magazine called Prospect.

Surely there must be ways of losing money with less effort? Can it be that we brutish British are a plausible market for serious 3,000-word- plus chunks of heavyweight political and cultural commentary? Shouldn't Goodhart and his colleagues have accepted that we read newspapers for the serious stuff, and gone instead for another male lifestyle magazine with lots of pictures of glossy cars and rock stars?

It is certainly the case that the large and perhaps oversupplied newspaper market caters for a range of intellectual interests which a generation or two ago were to be found more in magazines. Reviews, commentaries, analysis, even essays, now adorn the daily press as well as the Sundays. This makes life harder for anyone publishing weekly, or monthly.

But the caricature about British weeklies is merely that. Some good magazines have died, but that's always happening. The fracturing of the market for lifestyle magazines into ever-narrower niches, catering for every conceivable activity, taste and level of specialism has, no doubt, helped to squeeze the position of the generalist magazines. But the runes are not, in fact, that grim.

The Spectator's revival is particularly interesting. When Conrad Black bought it in 1988 two things were obvious about the 160-year-old magazine. First, it was doomed to lose money; it was a rich man's toy. Second, it would never see a return to its circulation heyday in the Forties - its highest figure had been 53,000 in 1946, though that was boosted (shades of the Times) by a large number of copies distributed gratis to the British Army of the Rhine.

Seven years on, both obvious truths have been upturned. The Spectator broke even three years ago and is now making a very healthy profit, 80 per cent of it from sales rather than advertising. And its most recent sale is 54,458 - above the 1946 figure, and on a much more strictly counted basis. Dominic Lawson, the editor, and Luis Dominguez, the publisher, who spent 20 years at the New Yorker, have a lot to crow about.

But how has it been done? After all, the magazine is relatively slim, expensive, awkwardly priced (pounds 1.90), sometimes infuriatingly opinionated, and pays its contributors pretty meagrely (I should know). It is right- wing and one would expect right-wing magazines to be struggling rather than thriving during a period of unpopular Conservative government.

But Lawson has pulled off a sneaky trick. He puts - wait for it - good journalism into his magazine. He has made the Spectator a place writers feel flattered to appear in and readers, clearly, like to read. Week in, week out, you get not only Jeffrey Bernard but the BBC's John Simpson, Boris Johnson of the Daily Telegraph, Simon Jenkins of the Times, Anne Applebaum, Martin Vander Weyer, Kevin Myers, Paul Foot and many more. You might not agree with them, for the general stance of the paper is flamboyantly right-wing English nationalism, but you want to read them; the Spectator is taken by many leftwingers as a kind of violent mental purgative. These people, I believe, generally think of the Spectator as a kind of club; its lunches, parties and awards are places where unlikely characters rub shoulders and nattering London bumps into itself.

There is more to be said. The magazine is neatly and classically designed, with excellent cartoons (often by the Independent's Michael Heath) and serves its writing up in easily digestible gobbets. Lawson adores controversy, recently courting the fury of pro-choice women, Jewish Americans and the Guardian. When his writers go over the top, he is generally standing alongside, egging them on.

The Spectator's success has provoked quite a bit of jealous criticism - it is xenophobic, philistine, reactionary, shallow, arch, conceited and so forth. (Some of its writers would preen themselves at that list.) But the basic message of the magazine under Lawson is simple and unideological; provocative, well-written English prose about topics people are interested in sells newspapers. There. Not a jaw-dropping conclusion, I grant you. But cheering, no? Clever-dick determinism about the inevitable decline of British weekly journalism has to start by explaining the Spectator.

This takes us, though, to the sadder story of the Spectator's traditional rival, the New Statesman, now incorporating the once-great New Society, too. The ``Staggers'' was vastly influential in the post-war period, with a galaxy of famous writers. By 1965, in the wake of Wilson's first victory, it hit sales of 100,000. Today it sells only 20 per cent of that; when people talk about ``the decline of the political magazine'' they are generally talking about the decline of the New Statesman.

Yet it is, in some respects, not unlike the Spectator. It offers a similar range of reviews, provocative opinion, columns, diaries, cartoons and so on. It, too, has expanded its coverage well beyond ordinary politics. It can pull in famous names - featuring, for instance, a lengthy Salman Rushdie interview recently. Among its regular writers it includes the mordant Laurie Taylor; its polemicists include Ian Aitken, who gets even better with age, and John Pilger. Its book reviews are generally, not universally, good. Though it went through a very bad phase in the early Eighties, it has recovered its interest in mainstream politics and in some recent issues has produced outstandingly well-written journalism (I'm thinking of an edition on Englishness in particular).

So what's wrong? Is it simply the victim of the marginalisation of the left? Or snobbishness? Or is it that too few of its potential readers can afford the pounds 1.65 it now costs? Is it that the Guardian caters too fully to the New Statesman's natural market? As with the Spectator, I suspect the real issue is about journalism rather than ideology or the general state of the market.

The New Statesman is hardly what you'd call a welcoming read. Its anguish about the world, its despair about almost all politicians and institutions and its deep hostility to the spirits of our time combine to produce a joylessness that everyone but the most committed leftist reader (and quite a few of them, too) finds off-putting. (Its anti-Blairism has even provoked rumours of an attempted putsch by pro-Blair trusties against the editor, Steve Platt - shameful if true.) The design and typography are cramped, glowering, and often relentless. The jokes tend to be sour, the controversies in the letters columns are rancorous.

All of which may seem harsh, but at least leaves the door open to a change in style and attitude. The problem is to do with the paper's approach; it isn't inherent. Across the publishing field, breakthrough books, magazines and ideas occur from time to time that demolish the conventional wisdom about what people will read - whether it be Stephen Hawking, or Will Hutton's The State We're In, or the phenomenon of Penguin 60s. This is the important lesson for Prospect, too. If it's really good, and people feel it gives them something they want, it'll sell. And if it fails - as I hope it doesn't - it will be a failure of journalism, not a failure of the British mind.

Andrew Marr has written for `Prospect' and the `Spectator'. He has been reviewed, without noticeable enthusiasm, by the `New Statesman'.