Ian Burrell: How the 'Statesman' got the headlines out of Williams

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The Independent Online

The Archbishop of Canterbury's guest-edited edition of the New Statesman was a triumph for the left-leaning periodical but less so for Rowan Williams himself.

His criticisms of the Coalition government provoked an angry and prompt response from the Prime Minister. A great result for the Statesman.

The strength of Downing Street's reaction may have been related to a striking cover, which showed the Archbishop portrayed in black and white by Scottish photographer Muir Vidler, accompanied only by two wordsm, the title of the magazine. It appeared the Primate of All England was stepping consciously and decisively on to the political stage. In fact, he had originally intended to write his leader about aid to Africa but was persuaded to change his mind and write about the Government.

The Archbishop is the fifth guest editor of the magazine and the most serious. But although the cover portrait gave this production a more personal feel than the previous guest editions (by Alastair Campbell, Ken Livingstone, Melvyn Bragg and Jemima Khan), the Archbishop was actually the only one of the five not to visit the magazine's office. He was represented by spokesman George Pitcher, an Anglican priest who is a former PR man and former industrial editor and religion editor of The Daily Telegraph.

The Archbishop was keen to include reportage from the socially deprived Kent mining communities which he experienced after moving from his native Wales. His cultural leanings are also reflected in the commissioning of a short story from AS Byatt.

His personal interview was with the Foreign Secretary, William Hague (though he would rather have played safe and questioned Ed Miliband). The discussion isn't newsworthy, unlike Ms Khan's lively encounter with Nick Clegg. Campbell generated publicity by interviewing Sir Alex Ferguson and Lord Bragg turned up a world exclusive with the last Ted Hughes poem and helped the New Statesman to its greatest-ever sale.

Lambeth Palace played its part in securing the interview with Mr Hague and in acquiring a piece from film director Richard Curtis (even though the Blackadder creator apparently thought he was being hired by his old partner Rowan Atkinson).

Ultimately, the story in Rowan Williams's guest edition of the New Statesman was – as regular editor Jason Cowley will have quickly realised – the clergyman's own sermon, by turns spiky and woolly. Like any good editor, the Archbishop managed to get his title talked about. Only he knows if he planned it that way.