While Labour blooms, radical journalism withers

Is left-wing writing being written off? asks Nick Cohen
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The Independent Online
THE TORIES may be in trouble but their favourite weekly magazine goes from strength to strength. The Spectator's sales are up from 41,000 in 1992 to 54,000 this year. Its editor, Dominic Lawson, has just been made editor of the Sunday Telegraph, while another previous editor, Charles Moore, has been elevated to the chair of the Daily Telegraph. Even many on the left, who find it ridiculous and offensive, praise its eccentricity.

Contrast this with the condition of the left-wing press. New Statesman, once the house magazine of civilised socialists, sells just 20,000 a week and is being torn apart by boardroom disputes. Tribune, the voice of the Labour left sells 9,000, and the new monthly green and socialist magazine Red Pepper has a circulation of 13,000. Even put together, they still sell less than the conservative Spectator, owned by the Telegraph group.

"Why?" left-wing journalists will be asking at a forum on the future of radical journalism in London on Thursday.

The forum, at the Friends' Meeting House, is meant to be a celebration of alternative journalism, but some participants wondered last week why, with Labour recording huge levels of support, left-wing ideas were making so little impact.

Hilary Wainwright, editor of Red Pepper, said that some of the blame lay with the "anti-intellectual" culture of the Blairites. Her colleague, Mark Seddon, the editor of Tribune, was blunter. "There's a new philistinism in Labour. It's not interested in debate. If you talk to people close to the Labour leadership they say all the party wants is ideas they can sell to the Sun, Mirror and Mail."

This view can lead to the comforting conclusion that there's not much wrong with the left-wing periodicals. A Labour Party that wants to capitalise on the great wave of anti-Conservative feeling without confronting deeper conservative beliefs is the guilty party.

"If papers of the left try to tie themselves to the coat tails of the Shadow Cabinet, they'll always be looking over their shoulders and produce journalism no one wants to read," said Ms Wainwright. "If they do not, they run the risk of being marginalised."

Others are less kind. Christopher Hitchens, a speaker at the forum, whose latest book takes the reputation of Mother Teresa and gives it a good kicking, suspects there is a wider problem with left-wing journalism.

He quotes the French insult langue de bois - tongue of wood - used to denigrate academic, official and politicised language. "For some reason, there is a certain wooden-tongued style on the left, I don't know why, there's no need for it."

Mr Hitchens arouses strong emotions, but no one doubts he can write well. Frank Johnson, the new editor of the Spectator, who can afford to be generous, said he thought the best writers in the country were on the left. For Mr Johnson, there is no general problem, just a problem with New Statesman.

But Francis Wheen, a stalwart of Private Eye, and one of the witty lefties Mr Johnson praised, said that it was easier for right-wingers to write well because they went for gut feeling rather than hard facts. He seized on one of his favourite targets: Paul Johnson (no relation to Frank), the former editor of The New Statesman who became an acolyte of Margaret Thatcher and is now, for the time being, a supporter of Mr Blair in the Spectator and Daily Mail.

"He's so wonderfully mad, I always read him," said Mr Wheen. "There is a joy in seeing something so loopy, you are always amazed it's been printed.

"A left-wing journalist will write a sensible article about why the House of Lords is ridiculous and lay out all the facts, but a right-winger will simply assume it's a good thing and put forward an irrational polemic."

Virtually every left-wing journalist pointed out that nearly all the jobs were in right-wing journalism. An unscrupulous young reporter would be advised to develop prejudices against Europe and the welfare state and in favour of the family and display them in the Spectator, or the Mail, Times and Telegraph.

But there are tiny signs that the world may be changing. In the past month, journalists on the Spectator and Telegraph have been displaying an internecine viciousness which would have embarrassed a 1970s constituency Labour party.

Frank Johnson's first act on arriving at the Spectator was to print an attack on Dominic Lawson, his predecessor. Alan Clark said Mr Lawson had "loathsome, sneering features, pastily glistening..." and slitty eyes. As Mr Lawson is Jewish and the former minister has a Rottweiler called Eva Braun, the assault was interpreted by some to be anti-Semitic.

And, when Mr Lawson arrived at The Sunday Telegraph, he quickly sacked Alexander Chancellor, one of his predecessors at the Spectator.

Meanwhile Tribune's circulation is rising and it is making a profit for the first time in living memory. Red Pepper has survived and New Statesman is predicting a rise in sales.

Paul Foot, the grand old man of left-wing journalism, said: "The left has been losing the argument for 20 years. But I'm an optimist. You couldn't be a socialist in this country if you weren't optimistic."