Media Profile: A political balancing act - Frank Johnson, editor, the Spectator

The Spectator is 170 years old this year. As one would expect, people have been lining up to praise the title, lauding the high quality of its journalism. Curiously, one person who is not talking about the classic tradition of Spectator journalism over the last 170 years is its editor, Frank Johnson.

The Spectator is 170 years old this year. As one would expect,

people have been lining up to praise the title, lauding the high quality

of its journalism. Curiously, one person who is not talking about the

classic tradition of Spectator journalism over the last 170 years is its

editor, Frank Johnson.



’I really can’t understand how it has survived,’ Johnson admits. ’It is

a bloody mystery. For most of its life it has been pulverisingly

boring.



I was going to bind the first issue on to our anniversary issue but when

I actually read it, it was so dull that I decided against it. It was

only in the 1950s that it picked up but then it had some hard times in

the 1970s and only really reached its current form under Alexander

Chancellor (Johnson’s predecessor).’



Johnson is a political journalist of the old school. Born in the East

End in 1943, he cut his teeth on a local paper in Walthamstow after

finishing school. He had wanted to be a boxing reporter for the the

paper until he was sent to cover a CND meeting at the height of the

organisation’s power in the early 1960s.



After that he worked in Fleet Street as a political reporter and

columnist, usually closely associated with the activities of Margaret

Thatcher who was a source of insipration for him.



’My most exciting time as a reporter was the collapse of the Heath

government,’ he says. ’This grocer’s daughter from the suburbs rose from

nowhere and showed me how unpredictable politics can be. I was

devastated by her fall and was very anti-Major for some time.’



It is not this unpredictability that has dissuaded him from crossing the

line and becoming an MP. ’It is the idea of sitting through those

surgeries every week with all those people whining to you about their

troubles,’ he says. ’I’d end up just telling them to snap out of

it.’



The arrival of New Labour does not seem to have hurt the title. Since 1

May 1997 its circulation has risen to just under 57,000. ’I was suprised

by New Labour’s majority, a sentiment I think I share with Tony Blair,’

he says. ’Since the election, I have had to work out how to keep the

politically uncommitted reader on board while not alienating the Tory

heartland. I had to avoid people saying they did not need to read the

Spectator anymore.’



To this end he recruited two New Labour insiders, Sion Simon and Derek

Draper, to write sympathetically about the Government. He plans to keep

Draper on board in spite of the recent publicity. ’I employed him as a

journalist not a lobbyist,’ he says. ’I don’t mind as long as they are

in touch with what is going on. I would get a Trotskyite to write for us

if they ever came back into fashion.’



He is still looking for a couple of other New Labour insiders, but has

no plans to switch the magazine’s political allegiance. Indeed, in his

Saturday column in the Daily Telegraph he recently wrote that William

Hague was the first Tory party leader he was in complete agreement

with.



’I guess that proves that I do not just slavishly follow the popular

people,’ he says.



HIGHLIGHTS

1986

Associate editor, the Times

1988

Associate editor, the Sunday Telegraph

1994

Deputy editor, the Sunday Telegraph

1995

Editor, the Spectator



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