D'Ancona brings a dash of punk rock, but no rebellion

By Ian Reeves

It has to be said that Matthew d’Ancona makes an unlikely punk. Sitting in his new office in the Edwardian splendour of The Spectator’s Doughty Street offices, it takes quite a leap of imagination to picture him pogoing around his bedroom to the Sex Pistols classic Pretty Vacant, the track he picks out as his alltime favourite single.

It also has to be said, given his political leanings and the magazine he now edits, that he makes an unlikely candidate to have had an epiphany in the newsroom of The Guardian.

Yet it was in that crucible of liberal thought, when he went in to deliver a book review, that the fellow of All Souls, Oxford, had a Damascene conversion and realised he wanted to forsake academia for the more exciting world of journalism.

But despite these two apparent contradictions, the d’Ancona trajectory has since followed a relentlessly upward establishment curve.

He was tipped as a possible future editor of The Times when he was a trainee, and was later described by his editor at the Sunday Telegraph as "astonishingly accomplished", so it’s hardly surprising to see him settling happily into one of the most sought-after editorships in the magazine world at the age of 38.

Three weeks in and he’s certainly got a grasp of the task in hand. He quotes a number of statistics: 55 per cent of Spectator readers have broadband in their homes. Their average reading time is a staggering one hour 45 minutes.

A high proportion have second homes.

Many are directors or chief executives.

He only goes a bit woolly when I ask their average age — "high 40s, early 50s" is his stab. Hmmm. Sounds a bit on the low side to me. But he says his years in newspapers have taught him to be wary of chasing the apparent Holy Grail of lowering your readership profile. "It can lead you into cul-de-sacs. The single- minded quest for the youth market ignores the complexity of the modern reader," says d’Ancona. "You have to be a little bit careful in assuming that if we start writing long articles about the Arctic Monkeys there are 10,000 readers who will rush to us. It’s a bit more complicated than that."

Instead, he says the magazine will be acknowledging in its coverage that generation gaps are starting to collapse.

The main statistics, though, are the profit figure of considerably more than £1 million and the magazine’s circulation figure of more than 70,000 — the highest in its history. For many reasons, but for this one in particular, Boris Johnson is going to be a tough act to follow.

Yet d’Ancona is confident. After three issues, he says, early indications (and they’d have to be very early) suggest a 10 per cent increase in newsstand sales — which usually account for up to 15,000 sales per week.

This he puts down to a greater focus on agenda-setting stories. He lists the Queen’s view of Charles Spencer’s speech after Diana’s death; Ken Clarke calling for a coalition with the Lib Dems; and David Davis saying radical things about Tory policy as issues that have made waves. He was delighted to see a Spectator editorial being quoted in the Evening Standard after the budget.

He’ll also be looking for more attention- grabbing cover artworks. "I don’t want to make it aggressive in the way a newspaper has to be, but I think it has to be able to compete with hundreds of titles in the newsagents. I’m always looking for good cover artists. We have a tremendous rep company already, you can’t beat them, but that doesn’t mean I won’t use others as well."

He describes his approach as having to "tread a path between timidity and recklessness". He won’t be treading water, nor will he be charging in and throwing his weight around just for the sake of it.

Instead the principle is one of "additionality": keeping all the stuff that regular readers love, and chucking in plenty else besides.

Business is one area of readership "we haven’t harvested yet". Anecdotal evidence suggests people in the City like it, are intrigued by it, but do not think it was for them. Martin Van der Veyder will be masterminding the new coverage with "several pages" every week.

"We’ll also beef up the back end of the book, with more classified, more high-end consumer copy, gadgets, things that people want to buy. Not quite How To Spend It, but that sort of thing."

The heart of The Spectator will remain its great writing. And, of course, its politics. D’Ancona knows David Cameron well, but how much of a friend will his magazine be to the new Tory leader?

"I don’t want anyone to think because I’ve been sympathetic to the modernising cause of the Tory party as a commentator, as an analyst, that we’ll be an in-house magazine of the Cameroons. We will judge them by the criteria of The Spectator. Our constituency is the readership.

"Phase one for Cameron has been very successful. But actually he’s done little more — although it is a great achievement — than to change the perception of their motives.

"It’s such a big task, turning the tanker on that one, it will occupy him for quite a while.

"For example, The Spectator will continue to advocate lower taxes. We appreciate that it’s difficult for the Conservatives to do that because people assume they just want to enrich themselves and their friends and slash public spending. But that’s their problem, not ours."

"We have a long history of thinking the tax burden is related to competitiveness.

And we’re not going to sacrifice that principle because it’s electorally convenient for the Cameroons. We’ll give them a fair wind and see what happens."

He notes with delight the fact that the pseudonymous Diary of a Notting Hill Nobody column, an inside story of Cameron’s charm offensive, has already started something of a witchhunt at Conservative HQ. "I’ve had two members of the shadow cabinet phone me this week trying to find out who it is.

All I’m going to say is that it isn’t me."

I wonder, given the recent circulation success, whether actually it’s easier to edit The Spectator when the Tories are not in power. D’Ancona laughs. "There is one way to find out."

In fact, what he describes as "one of great success stories of modern British journalism" has been on an upward curve since long before the Tories were thrown out. If you go through the recent editors, he says, there’s a reason with all of them that it’s done well: Charles Moore was a "journalistic colossus who took a magazine where there was literally rain coming in the building, and gave it tremendous zest and brio"; Dominic Lawson was a "news giant"; Frank Johnson brought in New Labour columnists; Boris Johnson’s "long triumphant reign was terrific for the magazine".

"I’m sure Boris would have been a brilliant editor under Prime Minister Portillo too.

"It’s so hard-wired into The Spectator to be independent and mischievous; the readers would be appalled if it became servile to anyone or anything."

He’s already brought in three associate editors, and hopes to hire more. It’s an unusual editorial structure in that it’s not based around a typical newsroom.

Many of the team have other jobs, and so only see each other once a week, at Thursday conference.

"As a gang they are politically diverse, journalistically brilliant and powerfully wedded to the idea that the Spectator is something special and has a spirit not to be squandered," says d’Ancona.

And what about boss Andrew Neil?

How hands-on will he be?

"He’s a very old friend of mine," says d’Ancona. Their paths first crossed when he was a trainee at News International in the latter days of Neil’s Sunday Times editorship.

"He’s one of the great journalists of his age. A man of unbelievable energy.

"He’s been 100 per cent helpful and has not issued a single editorial instruction."

As we wrap up, d’Ancona debunks one cuttings myth. He’s not the Star Wars buff of legend. "I hate to disappoint, but it’s not in my top 10 movies."

But that noted passion for pop music is obviously real, judging by his heartfelt advocation of the Pistols anthem.

"There is no pop record ever recorded that has such menace and attack. If you assume the purpose of pop is to conjure up that sense of teenage rebellion, I don’t see how you can beat that record really. Everything after it is second rate.

It is a full-blooded sonic attack that nearly 30 years later still has the power to put the hairs on the back of your neck up."

Quite what some of his more traditional readers would make of the lyrics, I’m not sure.

"I don’t believe illusions ‘cos too much is real, "So stop your cheap comment ‘cos we know what we feel"

On second thoughts, it might just make a decent Spectator tagline.

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