11 APRIL 1998, Page 29


It's only a little magazine, but it seems to concern some big politicians


How important is the New Statesman? Not very, you might think. The Spectator's traditional rival, which sold 80,000 copies in its Sixties heyday, now has a circulation of just over .25,000. Everyone agrees that the centre-left magazine is much better than it was two years ago, when it was acquired by Geoffrey Robinson, then a backbench Labour MP, now Paymaster-General, but it still leaves a pretty light imprint on national life. Its weekly offering of innumerable, rather earnest political articles appeals to those who like to demolish the latest Demos pamphlet before breakfast. It may look a bit marginal but the ques- tion of the successor to Ian Hargreaves, who resigned as editor last week, is seizing several minds in government. Put crudely, the Brownites — followers of our lugubri- ous Chancellor of the Exchequer — want an editor of their persuasion. The Blairites would naturally prefer one of their own. The magazine may appear a pretty small bone to squabble over, but that is not how it is seen on the inside.

When Mr Robinson bought the bankrupt New Statesman for £125,000 in March 1996, paying off debts of some £250,000, he spoke about investing enough to double its sales in two years. He has certainly invested a great deal, but Mr Hargreaves has not doubled the circulation, which was a tall order. The figures are a bit hazy since they Were not at that time officially audited, but it seems that the magazine was then selling about 17,500 copies a week. Sales rose to an average of 25,600 in the second half of last year, since when they appear to have run out of steam. A healthy increase of nearly 50 per cent, but not double. Mr Hargreaves absolutely denies that he has been given the heave-ho as a result of any disappointments Mr Robinson may harbour so far as circulation is concerned. He also denies that he is leaving his £120,000 a year job because he felt unable to write about Mr Robinson's recent tribu- lations with full candour. The Paymaster- General, it will be recalled, was revealed as the beneficiary of a lucrative offshore trust. Apart from one rather fence-sitting editori- al, the New Statesman steered clear of the controversy. I am inclined to believe Mr Hargreaves. His line is that he has had enough of the ceaseless grind of journalism. He has a one- year-old child, and another on the way. So he is becoming Professor of Journalism at Cardiff University and will present the Radio Four programme Analysis. His sur- vival as chairman of the three-person New Statesman board rather cuts the ground from under the feet of those who say that he was eased out. But, for all that, it is pos- sible to imagine that Mr Robinson is not completely broken-hearted to see Mr Har- greaves go.

Enter Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's ebullient press secretary. Mr Whelan believes that the New Statesman is one of the world's more boring magazines. He is a man of action rather than a philosopher, and seems to find the weekly's austere tone more than flesh and blood can bear. He has suggested — it is not clear whether this is a joke — that a worthy successor to Mr Har- greaves would be Peter Obome, political columnist on the Express. Mr Oborne often graces these pages and I would be the last to take issue with this judgment. There is, however, one technical impediment, which is that Mr Oborne is a Tory and the New Statesman is not.

Can a Tory be a Brownite on the basis that my enemy's enemy is my friend? These are deep waters. What is clear, whether or not Mr Oborne emerges as a serious candi- date, is that Mr Whelan would like to have a say in the matter of Mr Hargreaves's succes- sor. Mr Robinson is a junior Treasury minis- ter, and it is not fanciful to envisage Mr Whelan getting together with his master's junior colleague to chew over a few names. Might Mr Brown himself even throw a sug- gestion into the pot? Mr Robinson knows little or nothing about journalism, and should be grateful for ideas if he really wants to double the New Statesman's circulation.

The constitutional position is that Mr Robinson has no say. For as long as he is a minister the magazine is held in trust, `Cool Britannia.' administered by the board of which, as I say, Mr Hargreaves is chairman. But it argues no impropriety on Mr Robinson's part to imagine that he might wish to impart his opinion via three puffs of smoke from a Treasury chimney stack, and it would be no unpardonable weakness in Mr Hargreaves if he were susceptible to what he thought might be Mr Robinson's views. Of the other two members of the board, one is described as an old friend of the Pay- master-General. Let's put things the other way around: whoever is appointed as editor will surely be congenial to Mr Robinson.

But is Mr Robinson a confirmed Brown- ite? There's the rub. It was in his beautiful Tuscan villa, after all, that the Blair family stayed last summer. Mr Blair is Prime Min- ister and the chap who hands out ministeri- al jobs. If the Blairites were to identify their own candidate — and this would be a task for Peter Mandelson — Mr Robinson might well consider it prudent to accept him or her. If no such candidate is encour- aged, the chances are that the next editor of the New Statesman will be someone who does not displease Mr Whelan or, by asso- ciation, Mr Brown.

I personally don't care whether the next editor of the New Statesman is a Blairite or a Brownite, though I can see that if it were the latter it might make for less reverent journalism. The more important thing is to find someone who has a sense of humour and realises that there are other things in the world than politics and public affairs. Opening my New Statesman this week I encountered a 12-page 'round-table discus- sion' about 'the multi-media revolution'. Among the 22 participants was our old friend Ian Hargreaves. My, people do like to talk. 'Can we make a success of conver- gence?' asks Patricia Hodgson, BBC direc- tor of policy and planning. 'Can we exploit success at home and abroad to build the services we need over ten or 15 years?'

This is not weekly journalism. It is spe- cialised 'policy wonkery' produced for the benefit of policy `wonks'. Admittedly this is an extreme example, but it helps to explain why this competent but dull New Statesman seems to have leached a circulation plateau. It is aimed at the centre-left politi- cal and media classes, and there aren't enough of them to go round. If the maga- zine is going to double its circulation, the new editor, Brownite or Blairite, will have to think more about readers.