Out of the melee into the fire?

September 22, 1995

A new current affairs magazine hits the streets next week. Simon Midgley canvassed opinion on its chances of success.

Since the end of the second world war British journalism has been littered with the wrecks of high-minded literary and intellectual journals that have foundered on the hard rocks of economic reality. So many magazines have folded: The Listener, New Society, Punch, Marxism Today, Encounter, New Socialist, Now! and the Modern Review to name but a few.

Next Thursday however David Goodhart, a former Labour editor of the Financial Times, is hoping to buck the trend by launching Prospect, a new journal of ideas, an international current affairs monthly which he describes as essays for a sceptical age. It certainly contrasts dramatically with the postwar years, when The Listener peaked at 151,350 and the New Statesman, which now sells just 22,000, reached 90,000. Peter Hennessy, professor of contemporary history at London University's Queen Mary and Westfield College, says that back then the politicised nation had a huge appetite for what he calls "deep current affairs" because people were anxious about their future. Paper rationing, he adds, meant that media sources were restricted and people were forced to rely on the Home Service, Penguin paperbacks and the weekly newspapers for their more considered reflective thinking. Today, the pessimists argue that the sheer abundance and diversity of our national press and electronic news media militate against the existence of a healthy weekly or monthly periodical market.

Even so, Goodhart thinks the time is ripe to launch a politically pluralistic, analytical and polemical journal. He has taken indefinite leave of absence from the FT, raised Pounds 370,000 (including investing Pounds 25,000 of his own money), hired a small staff and rented offices a stone's throw from the British Museum's Reading Room.The aim is to establish a circulation of at least 30,000 at a cover price of Pounds 3.50, no mean task when you think that the relatively successful Spectator magazine sells only 54,450 for barely half the price.

He considers there is an intelligent readership out there yearning to be intellectually sustained by more demanding and stimulating fare. Certainly the American example is instructive. Across the Atlantic, there is a plethora of polemical and analytical magazines: Atlantic Monthly (circulation, 450,000), National Review (250,000), Harper's (207,626), New Yorker (658,916), New York Review of Books (135,000), and Foreign Affairs (106,559). And still the market seems not to have been exhausted. Last week, Rupert Murdoch launched a new, high-brow, conservative magazine called the Weekly Standard in Washington DC. Next Tuesday, the French-owned publishing group Hachette is launching George, a glossy, New York-based, political bi-monthly, edited by the glamorous John F. Kennedy Jr.

Perhaps Americans are more serious. Certainly "intellectual" is not a sneer word in the United States. Also, there is a much larger political, lobbying and academic class which, without a truly national press, turns to periodicals as the main way of keeping abreast of the latest political, economic and social thinking. These are significant differences. But Goodhart intends to make Prospect attractive by commissioning the finest and most authoritative writers to write classical polemical essays up to 5,000 words in length on subjects such as "The myth of globalisation", "Do we have a ruling class?" or "Can six billion people really have US standards of living?" Among those big names who have said they will contribute to the magazine are George Steiner, Ernest Gellner, Bernard Crick, W. G. Runciman, Sam Brittain and Mary Warnock.

The title-piece of the first issue will be a scholarly article by Amartya Sen, the economist, comparing China with India. Sarah Hogg, former head of the Number 10 think tank, will look at the failings of Whitehall in the light of calls for constitutional reform. There will be an article by Christopher Price, former head of Leeds Polytechnic, on the huge expansion of the British university system, and a piece by Alan Ryan on how the affirmative action programme in private US universities favours the sons and daughters of college alumni.

In a 96-page issue there might, for example, be five polemical essays which would be complemented by three slightly shorter (say 3,000 words long) synoptic, factual overview pieces analysing what is really happening in the former Yugoslavia or the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. There will also be reportage, a Brussels diary and a regular research findings slot which, in the first issue, will examine how the very rich spend their money.

Goodhart thinks there is room for a journal that can stand back from the daily and weekly melee of instant news reporting and analysis to adopt a more reflective, authoritative stance. And he points out that there is a growing feeling that the prescriptions offered by left and right no longer explain contemporary problems, the "new complexity" left by the end of the Cold War. "As far as we have a position on the political map," he says "it is between Ken Clarke and Peter Hain. It's that spectrum, but we are very open to intelligent contributions from outside that spectrum, from both left and right."

The weeklies in the past, he adds, were too narrow. Encounter was too closely identified with the Right, Marxism Today with the Left, the Listener with the BBC. It is a brave venture which has attracted significant funding. Some 52 people have chipped in, including Independent founder Andreas Whittam Smith, Conservative peer Ian Gilmour, television executive and Tony Blair buddy Barry Cox, and author Frederick Raphael. The largest stakeholder with 15 per cent is Derek Coombs, a former Conservative MP for Yardley in Birmingham who once tried to buy the New Statesman.

But some observers harbour doubts about the publication. Nicky Spice, publisher of the London Review of Books is concerned that Prospect will find it difficult to tell its very diffuse potential readership that it exists. The promotional budget of Pounds 120,000 is not very much, he points out, when compared to say that of Bella, whose German owners spent nine million on creating an instant circulation of one million. Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism Today, which closed in 1991 with a circulation of about 15,000, says: "Are there enough people who want to buy such a magazine and are prepared to pay enough money? Good luck to them, but selling over 30,000 in the United Kingdom at Pounds 3.50 is a tall order. It's got to capture the zeitgeist, be unpredictable, have real quality; it has got to be the cutting edge of ideas and politics. If it is not then it does not stand a chance."

Russell Twisk, a former editor of The Listener and now editor of Reader's Digest (at 1.6 million copies an issue the best read and best-selling magazine in Britain), wonders whether the market for it has been eroded by the soundbite culture? Has that made us incapable of digesting 3,000 words of solid thought?

But if hardened journalists are sceptical, academics emphasise the need for such a publication. David Marquand, professor of politics at Sheffield University and joint editor of the academic Political Quarterly, who is on the new magazine's editorial board, says that at a time when academics' interests are becoming ever narrower as a result of university departments being research rated, "it is more necessary now than ever before to have some kind of medium of communication where people can write serious pieces about culturally, politically and intellectually important matters in an accessible language which can be read with profit by people in other disciplines". Another board member, Lord Skidelsky, professor of political economy at Warwick University, says: "It seems a brave, adventurous thing to do but there may well be a market for it. There are lots of specialist academic journals, however most of them have a very small readership and a circle of academic discussion which has no impact on the public whatever and does not reach the wider circle of policy-makers and journalists. I read somewhere that the average readership of a journal article in some subjects was three." He says that since the 1960s academe has become more aloof from government and there is now little input from the universities into public policy making. A journal like Prospect could disseminate ideas more widely, and being international in outlook, prevent British discussion from becoming too parochial.

David Cannadine, Moore Collegiate professor of history at Columbia University, a third academic member of Prospect's editorial board, notes: "I think there is case to be made for saying we need a periodical which tries in a fairly general and deliberate way to get behind contemporary issues which are increasingly treated by newspapers in a very ephemeral way and to write more considered analysis. There is no doubt that there is an intellectual case. Whether that is a view the public will share we shall have to wait and see."

But even in the groves of academe there lurks the sceptical voice. Peter Hennessy wonders at the magazine's chances but wishes it a fair wind. "Nobody who has ever innovated in the information market has ever done it except in the teeth of people like me saying that it won't take," he says. "I am one of those people who would never have predicted the breakthroughs that have happened. Most forecasters tend to extrapolate from the past, which means they only think something is going to work if it more than replicates the past. People like me exist to be taken by surprise and confounded."

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