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Sorry Spectator
A tale of two magazines, separated at birth.


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A friend of mine has had the misfortune of being hired to run a fairly well-known glossy magazine in London, one that competes for readers with a handful of other magazines, all exactly alike. We know. We looked at a pile of them. They’re all identical. Having found a formula that delivers success on the newsstand, the only circulation battlefield that counts in the U.K., they each replicate themselves month after month after month.

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Until very recently, that problem didn’t really exist among British political magazines. The New Statesman leaned toward Labour and generally sold that line of goods to its sympathetic readers. The Spectator meanwhile batted right. There were and are others, but those two were the opposite poles of the political magazine world, or at least the British corner of it.

Of the two, I always felt The Spectator was generally more eccentric and less pompous, a fact even a casual reader could spot the moment he came across the small jewel of a column called “Low Life,” written until his death in 1997 by Jeffrey Bernard. There’s a different low-life writer doing the gig now, but he doesn’t really know low: First of all, he works out, and second, he’s apparently sober enough to drive a car. That leaves him very far from the stature of a Jeffrey Bernard, who took low to mean prone and was sometimes rendered so incapacitated by drink that he was unable to type his column. When that happened, The Spectator would simply print a small notice in the place where his column normally appeared. It read, “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell.”

But now the entire magazine has gone face-to-turf, drunk on political correctness and affected pacifism. These days, The Spectator is unwell.

I’m a fan of the mag, so I should have seen it coming. In fact, I did. It was the night the Hutton Report, damning the BBC and exonerating Blair, was released. There, outside Westminster, was Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (formerly of the Daily Telegraph, famous TV pundit, Conservative MP for Henley, and, since 1999, editor of The Spectator), insisting to a plainly skeptical reporter that no matter what Hutton said, the reverse was true: Blair was the one who had lied and Andrew Gilligan (a BBC reporter, formerly of the Daily Telegraph, and, since earlier this year, defense and diplomatic editor of The Spectator), was right when he said Blair had manipulated intelligence reports in order to support his argument for going to war in Iraq alongside America.

Like so many from the left and the right who despise Blair for one thing or another, the suicide of David Kelly and Blair’s assumed contribution to it was supposed to be the big, black block upon which the cheap and chippy chopper wielded by Lord Hutton would deliver a short, sharp shock to Britain’s prime minister–at which point the red flag of the Left or the blue ribbon of the Right, depending, would once again ascend. It did not happen, of course. What Hutton found was as obvious as Dick Van Dyke’s ottoman: Blair was right; the BBC and Gilligan were wrong.

For The Spectator, that just couldn’t be true. Boris Johnson and his colleagues at the magazine, joined by Gilligan, have filled the long, painful months that have passed since Hutton delivered his rather straightforward report with an obsessive, desperate, and now embarrassing effort to prove, somehow, some way, that, as one Spectatorcover story claimed, Hutton got it all backward, that Blair must have lied, and that in any case the war in Iraq is an evil lunatic’s adventure.

It’s a point of view that has been repeated lately with numbing predictability in The Spectator. In recent weeks, the magazine’s writers have excoriated the Coalition as “international vigilantes” and ridiculed Blair for warning about the dangers of terrorism (the item appeared within hours of the bombings in Madrid, alas). The magazine claimed that “the war on Iraq has done nothing to damage Islamic terrorism: quite the reverse” and then proclaimed in an editorial titled “We Are Not at War” that terrorism would never be defeated anyway.

This shrill little crescendo peaked in last week’s big peacenik issue, featuring a piece by Rod Liddle headlined “Things Were Better Under Saddam,” a concept that not even Mrs. Saddam would buy. “As a result of our actions,” Liddle claimed, “many more people have lost their lives (or, for that matter, been maimed or made homeless) than would have been occasioned by another ten years of Saddam’s rule.” Liddle had no source for that clever stat, but it doesn’t matter. He just types it; The Spectator just prints it. And if Liddle sounds a little off-center, he is: He was replaced as editor of Radio 4’s “Today” program after the BBC claimed he was unable to “square with the BBC’s obligation to be impartial and to be seen to be impartial”–and at the BBC, the bar for that particular standard is set someplace below sea level and protected by dykes.

Meanwhile, in the same issue, Sam Kiley complained from Iraq about the annoying “Hogs of War,” as he called the four private security guards who were murdered and mutilated in Fallujah while escorting a food convoy. They had no business being there, wrote Kiley, who apparently did.

The week’s cover story: “The Sound of Rockets in the Morning,” by Andrew Gilligan. The defense and diplomatic correspondent argued that in Iraq, a disaster’s right around the corner because the U.S. is inept. Baghdad’s tense–on edge–he wrote. At an airline office, where he went to secure a seat home again, “The scene…is like Saigon, say, two weeks before the fall: not quite open panic just yet, but not far off it.” You can be sure that Gilligan’s reporting from Saigon back in ‘75 was lots better than his reporting last year from Baghdad, when he missed the arrival of the U.S. Army.

Anyway, by Spectator standards, it was quite a week. For seven days, the magazine got to pretend it was Esquire and the staff all dressed up like Michael Herr and wrote about the rock and roll of war. It was cool.

Then, this week, an apparent hangover: In “The Cynicism of the Defeatists,” the magazine gave a little room to William Shawcross who took aim at both Liddle and Gilligan:

“The more progress, the more violence to stop it. Mario Vargas Llosa has written of ‘the various sects and movements bent on provoking the Apocalypse in order to prevent Iraq from soon becoming a free and modern country …a perspective that rightfully terrifies and drives insane the gangs of murderers and torturers [of Saddam Hussein's rule] along with the fundamentalist commandoes from al-Qa’eda….’

“Vargas Llosa is right. How sad it is that two senior writers of The Spectator prefer to resort to meretricious, sneering commentary. The ‘trahison des clercs’ is truly upon us.”

Like white on rice. But Shawcross’s piece, and an accompanying Mark Steyn item, are too little, much too late, and way beside the point. It isn’t that any one of these stories is without interest; in fact, it’s been fun to watch The Spectator spend as much money as possible in the waning days of Hollinger ownership by sending busloads of writers to Iraq. And one of the pleasures of reading The Spectator is the obvious fact that favored writers can write whatever they please as long as they also write well.

But the problem is that by engaging in a self-indulgent, serial rant, The Spectator, celebrated by the Daily Telegraph in a 175th-birthday salute as a refreshing, controversial and contrarian publication, has become tiresomely uncontroversial and blandly conformist. Doing the Iraq pile-on isn’t exactly innovative journalism, and despite Max Hastings’s earlier assertion in The Spectator that Iraq is a quagmire, even the smell of napalm in the morning won’t make it Vietnam. Next time, Boris, send the gardening guy.

Lately, there’s very little in The Spectator that hasn’t already appeared, often and at great length, in the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, or, for that matter, in the Telegraph, where Johnson writes a weekly column filled with helpful references to The Spectator. In fact, the magazine is so non-contrarian, that for the last several months, The Spectator has fallen in step with the The New Statesman–the earth-shoe of political mags, home to some of the planet’s most trite leftwing ideas–where an issue almost exactly like The Spectator’s may be read this week, last week, apparently any week.

In fact, the lineups of the two mags have started to match with a kind of eerie precision. Last week, John Pilger played the role of Liddle, and this week Andrew Stephen visits the same topic Kiley covered. The New Statesman’s current cover story is an argument in favor of appeasement (“only another name for the willingness to negotiate”–or another word for nothing left to lose) in response to the al Qaeda offer of amnesty to those who surrender. “The truth is that force alone cannot end terrorist violence,” writes The New Statesman’s John Gray.

The Spectator couldn’t have said it better–and they proved it in an editorial earlier this month, when they wrote, “It is not possible for the West to achieve an outright defeat of a terrorist organisation.” Too many words.

Great minds might think alike. But even mediocre magazines shouldn’t.

ITEMS

Promise them poetry. Dominique de Villepin, the sensitive former foreign minister of France, is now in charge of the interior ministry, following in the footsteps of one of the few competent French politicians in government today, Nicholas Sarkozy. Chirac sent Sarkozy off to die by trying to implement reforms to stave off financial despair. The CGT, the national trade union and France’s last bastion of Communist influence, isn’t inspiring an environment of compromise: This week, according to Libération, stage technicians are on strike. No (state-subsidized, underattended, overperformed) Moliere! Meanwhile, Villepin’s public pronouncements have been flamboyant and meaningless enough to make up for missing theatrical events, even if they’re mostly designed to help him outmaneuver Sarkozy. Today, for example, the part-time poet wastes several thousand words before he tells Le Monde that with him in charge of the interior ministry, “everyone can find a place in France.” Sounds like a boom for ushers and sign-painters. Here is how the interview looked to the newspaper’s cartoonist. Meanwhile, on the all-important headscarf front, Le Monde notes that nobody can figure out the technical difference between a proselytizing scarf and an agnostic scarf. The controversy has thrown everyone into a tizzé.

You look familiar. It’s not hard to imagine why Iraqis are fearful of cooperating with the Coalition. A few weeks ago, BBC’s Panorama found the chap who revealed Saddam’s hiding place to American forces. The BBC claimed it was an enormous scoop; after they broadcast his name and face on the program, the information was repeated on TV and radio, including on the World Service, non-stop for 48 straight hours and is still available online. If you need to know, for your own Baathist purposes, go to the BBC’s site and look it up yourself. Meanwhile, Merde in France carries the galling report of Alexandre Jordanov, the self-promoting French journo who claimed he was seized by terrorists in Iraq, then released because of his obvious Frenchiness. His mission is now to help spread the gospel of anti-Americanism, of course.

How do you say “hero” in Italian? Repeat after me: Fabrizio Quattrocchi. Quattrocchi, according to the Corriere dela Sera, was one of the Italians murdered by terrorists in Iraq. When the gunmen tried to humiliate him, Quattrocchi declined, telling them to watch, because he wanted them to see “how an Italian dies.” They shot him and he died staring them down. Al Jazeerah got the video, but refused to release it, saying it was too violent and offensive. To terrorists.

Hey. That’s no way to say goodbye. Normally, when a guy gets fired, he takes it straight up, making his boss look crazy in the process. But Greg Dyke, the BBC’s editor-in-chief, and the man who placed the credibility of the corporation on the line in support of Gilligan–only to admit that he never really investigated the facts in the case until later–is back in public, this time calling the governors of the BBC names, according to this Guardian item. The paper reports today that Dyke reprised his performance yesterday, this time on a quiz show, with obscenities added for comic effect.

Blair’s 180 x 2. On Sunday, Tony Blair, according to the Observer, finally broke down and promised Brits a referendum to approve his plans to give the United Kingdom to the Belgian civil service by agreeing to a new EU constitution. But by mid-week, Jack Straw was telling the BBC that it may not happen after all. Eursoc calls the whole charade “Blair’s Irish joke.” Today’s International Herald Tribune says if there is a U.K. referendum, it puts most of the other EU nations on the spot, since Britons aren’t the only ones apparently unwilling to pay for an extra-fat layer of cheesy government. Blair’s flip-flops drove the Daily Express to once again support the Tories. But by week’s end, Richard Desmond, owner of the Express group, offended everybody, according to the Guardian, by saying all Germans were Nazis–when in fact only some Germans were Nazis.



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