Boris Johnson: armed and dangerous

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."

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home