5 MARCH 1988, Page 18


The press: Paul Johnson

offers advice to two journals contemplating matrimony

THE proposal to merge New Society and the New Statesman, and relaunch the com- bined publication with an injection of fresh capital from the Rowntree Trust, is sensi- ble. Neither magazine has much of a future on its own. The concept of New Society dates from a period before 'sociologist' became a term of abuse; it flourished in the days when local councils were hiring staff as if there were no tomorrow and rate- payers' cash and government resources seemed infinite. At one time its 'situations vacant' columns stretched over scores of pages and commercially justified a maga- zine devoted primarily to issues which interest public sector social workers. Those days have gone. almost certainly for ever. In any case the Guardian, which has greatly expanded its readership and moved leftwards since New Society was founded, is now the prime vehicle for such advertis- ing. To survive, a broader appeal is re- quired.

The New Statesman's problems are quite different. Since the mid-1970s it has been a victim of sectarianism. From being a toler- ant, idiosyncratic, not obsessively political journal of the liberal Left, with as many Conservative, Liberal and apolitical read- ers as Labour Party ones, it turned itself into a Labour faction sheet, with scarcely any appeal outside the Party faithful. Indeed it antagonised many Labour Party moderates too. More recently it has be- come excessively concerned with strident feminist and homosexual issues, thus furth- er narrowing its base. The quality of its coverage of books and the arts, once outstanding, fell catastrophically, and it ceased to be a journal that people turned to for good writing, on literature, society, politics or anything else.

.Each paper by itself, then, faced a future overshadowed by closure. There is no guarantee they can survive together. It all depends how it is done. Anxiety is being expressed, by former New Society contri- butors, that their paper will in effect be swallowed by the New Statesman. They fear Holy Deadlock. That could easily happen. When two papers merge, the one with the stronger personality — nearly always the one with the sounder commer- cial base too — invariably annihilates the weaker partner. That has occurred many times in the world of weekly journals. When in 1921 the Nation merged with the Athenaeum, the latter vanished almost without trace. A decade later the Nation and Athenaeum disappeared into an oub- liette when the joint product merged with the New Statesman. In 1934, the New Statesman bought the Weekend Review, for the princely sum of £1,000, and this journal too evaporated into thin air. It is true that the odd feature survived; the weekend competition, for example, came from the Review, but in no time at all it was regarded as a 'typical' New Statesman institution. When I first started writing for the paper in the early 1950s, it was still called the New Statesman and Nation, 'Incorporating the Athenaeum and the Weekend Review', but no one ever gave them a thought.

With its history of successful cannibalism therefore, the New Statesman is widely expected to gobble up New Society. But this need not happen and in my view should not happen. For one thing, it is not at all clear that New Society is the weaker paper. It is better editorially, and it cer- tainly ought to be more viable commercial- ly. More important, however, it has a role to play in helping the New Statesman to reacquire its original and highly successful character.

It is often assumed that the New States- man was created by the Webbs in 1913 to provide intellectual backing to the emerg- ing Labour Party. This is a serious mis- apprehension. It was certainly closely associated with the Fabian movement and anxious to help Labour. But its aims were much broader. It wanted to bring the spirit and practice of scientific inquiry into the public process. Its biggest single impulse was the famous Minority Report (1909) to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. The New Statesman was the successor to The Crusade, the organ of the campaign to get the Minority Report implemented. One of its chief functions was to publish the results of scientific inquiries into social problems. In its origins, therefore, the New Statesman was in some ways much closer in character to New Society than to the New Statesman of recent years. The links with the Labour Party were fortuitous, not organic. Its first editor, Clifford Sharp, wrote: 'We did not merely profess to have no political affiliations. We had none.' The aim was to appeal to men and women of goodwill, the educated elite, irrespective of their party. As the paper's historian, Ed- ward Hyams, put it: 'The spirit of new statesmanship was that of Victorian moral- ity, Christian ethics, but with science tak- ing the place of religious faith and with rational self-helping action taking the place of prayer'. Beatrice Webb was just as anxious to influence the opinions of Tories like A. J. Balfour (who had put her on the Royal Commission) and Liberals like Lloyd George, as Labour MPs, who had very little clout in those days. The paper needed a multi-party audience and had to exercise a multi-party appeal to get one. It acquired such an appeal by being reason- able, persuasive, factual and above all by avoiding stridency. Its approach was scien- tific rather than ideological.

The merger can be used to give back to the New Statesman some of its original virtues of rationality and objectivity, and in doing so preserve New Society's own ethos. The merged paper must firmly distance itself from the Labour Party and, above all, turn its back on sectarianism. Its first editor should not, ideally, be a member of any party. His or her commitment should be to political science, not to any specific ideology. The paper ought to be radical. But one of the characteristics of the Thatcher era is that it has ended the Left's monopoly of radicalism. There are all kinds of radical ideas floating around now and the new paper should examine them all in the same enquiring spirit. That is the way to retain New Society's readers and to win back some of the many thousands the New Statesman has lost.

However, a shift back to scientific objec- tivity will not be enough to make the joint venture a success. The merged paper must become, more literate, more attractive to read, than either of its components are at present. It is essential to appoint a first- class literary editor, with the freedom to run the back half on a standard of quality, not ideology. It is equally important to attract good writers, something both maga- zines conspicuously lack at present, and that too means giving them freedom. Not least, the merger, in bringing together two demoralised and therefore depressing pap- ers, needs exhilaration. When Kingsley Martin was appointed editor of the newly- merged New Statesman and Nation, he was asked what he intended to bring to it. He replied, 'High spirits'. That remains an excellent policy today.