Boris Johnson: armed and dangerous
Tuesday 21 December 1999
Looking at the quiet beauty of the Georgian house on Doughty Street in Bloomsbury, you would think that the offices of
The Spectator are everything the readers expect - the embodiment of Englishness, restraint and good manners. But you would be wrong. Because, for the past week, the newspapers have been hinting that behind the scenes at the stately organ of the political right, there has been untold turbulence, culminating in the sacking of Dowager Baroness Hesketh, 70, as rugby correspondent.
Looking at the quiet beauty of the Georgian house on Doughty Street in Bloomsbury, you would think that the offices of The Spectator are everything the readers expect - the embodiment of Englishness, restraint and good manners. But you would be wrong. Because, for the past week, the newspapers have been hinting that behind the scenes at the stately organ of the political right, there has been untold turbulence, culminating in the sacking of Dowager Baroness Hesketh, 70, as rugby correspondent.
The man responsible is blond Boris Johnson, who arrived as editor at the magazine last July with a mission to restore to it the political edge it has lost in recent years. He is also charged with regaining its waning reputation for excellent writing and to adding few scoops to match those of the days when Dominic Lawson was editor and lured Nicholas Ridley into disclosing his real and politically fatal views of the Germans.
So far, Mr Johnson has entered into the spirit of the thing with gusto - even when it meant taking the heart-wrenching decision to give Lady ("Kisty") Hesketh the boot. "It was a great honour for us to carry her insights into the scrimmage techniques of the England back row," says Johnson, showing real affection for his victim, "and I'm sorry that space made it difficult to keep her regular slot."
Then Mr Johnson appointed the Tory MP Nicholas Soames as wine correspondent, following the loss of Auberon Waugh's long-running wine column. Soames's "very physical presence testifies to his authority on wine and food", says Johnson.
Boris has also boldly tackled "the problem of Petronella": he is in the process of finding a new deputy editor to replace Petronella Wyatt, the daughter of the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford. Everyone, including Johnson, is being diplomatic about "Petsy". "It's true that she is stepping down as deputy editor, that she no longer holds that great office of state at The Spectator," says Johnson, "but she will continue to be an honoured and valued honcho with a title of some grandeur which is still being thrashed out."
Petronella had caused a stir with an unflattering interview with Sir Christopher Bland, the chairman of the BBC ("Sir Christopher runs the company as a personal fiefdom..." "Sir Christopher puffed up his chest like a blue canary," etc).
Her piece was a gripping read, but the magazine was forced to publish an apology for various inclusions, in particular the allegation that Sir Christopher had shouted at Miss Wyatt. "He did not say, in relation to presenters, 'It is good for them to be afraid,'" the apology continued, "nor did he refer, in the context of life in the pre-television age, to 'bear-baiting and prostitutes'. Finally, Sir Christopher maintains, contrary to the impression we gave, that he watches plenty of television."
Miss Wyatt also asserted that there are pictures of erect penises on Sir Christopher's office wall - a claim that The Spectator has not withdrawn, despite the BBC's insistence that the only penis on Sir Christopher's walls is limp and appears in a painting of the Madonna and child. A mystery remains over whether Miss Wyatt's imagination got the better of her, or whether the BBC has quickly taken down the controversial drawings.
But Petronella's days as deputy editor seemed numbered well before the Christopher Bland article was published. She is respected for her ability to craft a fine sentence, and charm the old chaps whom she selects for her interview couch (Denis Healey was a memorable conquest), but her youth, beauty, Chanel clothes and perfect make-up made her an object of envy; while having a famous father and a comfortable home life with her mother Verushka gave the impression of a charmed and pampered existence.
Then she began to be accused by colleagues of spending "less than conventional office hours" at her desk, and considerable amounts of time working on her book - an affectionate portrait of her father. At times it seemed that she epitomised a culture gap, and consequent internal tension, that had been developing for some time at the magazine. Ian Buruma, the writer and former foreign editor of The Spectator, has described working at the paper in terms that make it seem more like a lifestyle choice than a job. He says the place is, deep down, a "theatrical fantasy", bringing together old style, in the form of the editorial staff, with new money.
While Petronella is a version of "the old style", the "new money" on the magazine is represented by Kimberley Fortier, the glamorous American publisher placed inside Doughty Street by the Canadian Conrad Black, who owns both the Telegraphs (Sunday and Daily) and The Spectator. It is Miss Fortier's task to ensure that the magazine is run in a modern, professional manner and makes money.
At times she makes her frustrations with Miss Wyatt quite obvious. One day last year, for instance, when Petronella was not at her desk, Miss Fortier telephoned Verushka to persuade her to send her daughter to the office for an important meeting. ("Do all British companies work like this?" she wondered. "Do you really have to call up the mothers of executives to coax them into getting their offspring to meetings?")
Such eccentricities among the staff are nothing new at The Spectator. For a decade from 1978, for instance, the late "fat lady" of television, Jennifer Paterson, was on the staff as cook for the famous Spectator lunches. In her time there she prepared lunches for Graham Greene, Alec Guinness, Enoch Powell and the Prince of Wales. When she died in August this year, friends reminisced about the time when, after slaving away preparing mackerel mousse in the tiny kitchen on the third floor, she served it up to the amazed Russian ambassador with the comment: "My brother knows all about Ulan Bator."
On another occasion, upon entering the kitchen and seeing the dirty coffee mugs left there by the accounts staff, she threw them out of the window into the next-door garden of the National Association of Funeral Directors.
The Spectator nurtures such characters. From time to time, it has not minded that staff are tipsy, if they are also clever, characterful and generally admired by the editorial team. If people behave amusingly, that is good. Commenting on political editor Bruce Anderson at The Spectator Christmas lunch, Boris Johnson said approvingly: "He ate his roast beef raw and inhaled the Yorkshire pudding via a nasal drip in its batter state."
Ian Buruma, a Dutchman, was, he says, flattered to be in "this old Anglophile world" but soon realised that he would never be part of it as "I could never quite shake my fear of striking a false note". He adds that, in the end, he felt ill at ease with young people "whose main aim was to conserve the system in which they had got on, and who looked at any alternative with amused contempt".
Boris Johnson has a tricky task - to preserve the best of The Spectator, its liveliness and eccentric ways, while satisfying Kimberley Fortier's demands for a more conventional sort of professionalism.
Friends says that Boris is deeply serious about the task of editing, that beneath the jokey, self-deprecating, other-worldly exterior lies a steely determination to enhance The Spectator's reputation as "the oldest and best magazine in the English language" (Johnson's description).
Johnson is known to take the view that The Spectator should not be a reactive magazine, that it needs to get a few journalistic scoops. "It's important that The Spectator is not just a Tory salon," says one friend, "and that it has real edge in interrogating the glutinous assumptions of Blair's Britain".
A recent Spectator editorial about the Millennium Dome is deemed to indicate the shape of things to come. It is not merely a rant against the architecture of "the Greenwich puffball", or its appearance of being a trade show. Instead it considers the really "terrifying possibility that the Dome is not a failure, but a success, in the sense that it accurately reflects us and our world".
"We must reconcile ourselves humbly to the truth that our masters have made a mirror of ourselves: interested in football, money and instant gratification," Johnson writes. "That does not mean that genius has fled these islands or that we are beyond hope."
"That's the thing about Boris," says a friend, "is that he plays the innocent abroad, on Have I Got News for You and Radio 4 panel games and so on, but actually he is deeply serious. And he's particularly serious about making a success of his time at The Spec."
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