'New Statesman' charter torn up

Magazine crisis: Staff told to put up or shut up as 'absentee landlord' returns to take control
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The Independent Online
CHRIS BLACKHURST

Westminster Correspondent

The crisis at New Statesman & Society will take another twist today when Philip Jeffrey, its socialist millionaire major shareholder, returns to take day-to-day control.

Speaking to the Independent from Cyprus, where he has been on holiday, before flying back to Britain, Mr Jeffrey offered no guarantees as to the future of the troubled magazine's staff and said he was tearing up its old hallowed constitution.

This followed last week's dramatic intervention by Mr Jeffrey, who for the past two years has acted like an absentee landlord, when he forced the resignation of its entire board. He took that decision after becoming fed up with newspaper reports that directors were putting together a refinancing package, one of the prices of which would be the removal of Steve Platt, his ally as editor.

"I will not finance a divided house any more. I will say to staff 'you can either work with me or get on your bikes'," he said yesterday.

Having put pounds 600,000 in to the magazine two years ago to no profitable result, he is reluctant to spend any more. Instead, he is going to Brighton to the Labour conference to launch what he calls Operation Phoenix, attracting 1,500 investors offering pounds 1,000 each to create a new New Statesman.

If he cannot persuade enough investors, Mr Jeffrey, who made his fortune from developing the FADS DIY chain, will make up the shortfall to the pounds 1.5m estimated to be the cost of re-launching the magazine.

The title & Society, acquired when the New Statesman merged with New Society, will go. Also to be scrapped, according to Mr Jeffrey, will be the magazine's constitution, first drawn up by George Bernard Shaw, its founder, in 1913. "The old New Statesman, with a constitution written by Shaw and revised by John Maynard Keynes, is going."

In its place, he said, would be a new, more business-like magazine, with a new set of rules. This could put Mr Jeffrey, who holds 49 per cent of the shares, on collision course with the other shareholders. Under its rules, the New Statesman has five trustees who hold special "E" shares guaranteed to protect editorial independence.

Since he announced he was calling for the resignation of the board last week, three directors have left and the rest will tender their resignations at a board meeting on Tuesday. Brian Basham, one of the directors who was trying to drive through a series of reforms and a refinancing package, yesterday said he was unhappy with Mr Jeffrey's behaviour. Mr Basham will resign next Tuesday but only with a lawyer present as a witness to ensure there is no misunderstanding over the reasons for his and the other directors' departures. Mr Basham said he was "very pleased Philip Jeffrey is at last taking over. It just irritates me he has chosen to do so in an egotistical and precipitative manner".

Referring to the way Mr Jeffrey defeated Derek Coombs, former Tory MP, to take control of the New Statesman in 1993, Mr Basham said that there was now "the paradoxical situation where a professed socialist and puritan wants to act in a more Draconian and Thatcherite manner than even an ex- Conservative MP."

Fading glory of a socialist beacon that cast its light around the world

1913: New Statesman founded and financed by George Bernard Shaw (right), and Sidney and Beatrice Webb to promote Fabian Socialism.

1930s: Magazine enters 'golden' period with Kingsley Martin as editor and contributions from the likes of Bertrand Russell, EM Forster and Keynes. NS is staunchly pacifist and anti-imperialist.

1957: Stirring J B Priestley article acts as springboard for formation of CND.

1963: 50th birthday celebrations see socialist leaders around the world including the Indian prime minister Nehru and Julius Nyerere, of Tanganyika, paying tribute to NS's massive influence.

1966: Circulation peaks at 96,000 with NS required reading for liberal, left-of-centre intellectuals.

1970: Richard Crossman (right) becomes editor. Magazine starts to concentrate on internal Labour issues and wranglings. Begins downward path.

1982: Bruce Page voted out of the editor's chair by the board after disastrous editorship.

1988: New Statesman with circulation down to 26,000 merges with New Society which has seen its circulation slump to 22,000. Magazine now called New Statesman and Society.

1990: Staff buyout puts little known Steve Platt (right) into editor's chair once occupied by Anthony Howard, Paul Johnson, John Freeman and Hugh Stephenson as well as Crossman and Martin.

1993: Socialist millionaire Philip Jeffrey beats Derek Coombs, former Conservative MP, for control of almost bankrupt NSS.

1995: Jeffrey forces resignation of board and takes over day- to-day control and launches rescue plan.

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