Sunday, October 03, 2010

a glimpse of the press in action: Johnson family edition

Sorry about this, but yet more journobashing follows. And I warn you that the actual information in this story is media-bollocks, but it may be interesting all the same. Zoe Williams interviews Rachel "Boris Johnson's Sister" Johnson, editor of the Lady.
Rachel Johnson has been editing the Lady for almost a year. In that time, it has generated a spectacular amount of chat – gossip columns, a massive article in the Sunday Times, a full hour on Channel Four, and now a book, A Diary of the Lady: My First Year as Editor (which, incidentally, is a total romp. I don't know why I'm talking like this. I seem to have caught something from the book, a contagious mannered poshness).

That would be another Moretti Moment, I think. It gets better, a bit. But the problem with this piece is a classic case of burying the lede. You have to get through 16 paragraphs of stuff like this:
Johnson is possessed of a great deal of charisma, which makes her seem incredibly beautiful in a way that surprises you afterwards, because in photos she looks like a pleasant, bossy, female version of her brother, Boris...I don't really see it as anything to do with journalism, or editorial in-fighting, or the fortunes of the magazine, but more a series of small skirmishes that are so closely, unflinchingly described that they are magnetic, the way a mother and a daughter fighting in a shoe shop is magnetic, even though you know exactly what they're going to say...Amusingly, every time she leaves off from her detached self-flagellation and is unpleasant about anyone but herself, especially anyone in the Lady offices, she finishes by telling you how beautiful they are, or, if that absolutely won't stand, willowy...

...before the remaining readers who haven't yet scooped out their lobes with the kitchenware to escape all this hideousness arrive at some content, yer actual Shannon information.

It is pretty obvious that this just isn't a family trying to revive a flagging magazine, it's one that wants a bit more heft in the world. They want the mayor of London's sister on speed dial, they want an editor who has a picture of herself talking to David Cameron on her noticeboard. "They just want a seat at the table, don't they?" She shrugs. "The magazine's not a power in the land, though, is it? It could be again. What I think would be quite nice would be to have an alternate offering to the Spectator, which looks lovely. We're not intellectual, but we don't talk down." "You want it to be the Spectator's wife?" "Yes! Exactly!" This wasn't at all my point, but it's not the first time I have to submit to her superior conversation-management. Her appointment, the subsequent sackings, the documentary, none of this has anything to do with a magazine. I feel bad for her that she's sweating the numbers, but then it occurs to me that maybe the intoxication of power makes up for it.

So the point is to convert the paper into a new right-wing organ? Now that's actually interesting and informative. A new right-wing organ edited by the Mayor of London's sister (and that of the MEP for the South East and MP for Orpington). That's also actually interesting and informative, especially as a lot of Tories apparently don't really accept Boris Johnson as a genuine Tory, and tension is picking up between Johnson's administration in City Hall and David Cameron's government upriver in Whitehall.

And you can see how this could work. The owners obviously aren't particularly obsessed with the circulation or the display-ad revenue, or they would hardly have let it go on in its current form all these years. Or, for that matter, appoint an amateur catblogger whose chief qualification is being the Mayor of London's sister as editor. The point of an opinion mag isn't circulation, but influence, or propaganda - it's about influencing the stuff that gets into the newspapers that do have a real circulation. The paper does fit rather well with both the Johnsons' public image and the aesthetic culture of the current Tories. And the rather grand offices in Covent Garden look like a great place for an "event".

Also, getting your sis appointed editor is a lot cheaper than buying the paper. Further, the fact she brought her husband (the communications director of the National Trust, would you believe it) to the job interview is interesting.

So, if we were going to reconstruct this as journalism, we might move this couple of sticks up to the lede, just ahead of the rather good point that despite all the "chat" the paper's circulation has gone nowhere. In fact, we might make the point that rather than "chat", in its political context, this is the real substance of the Johnson family - relentless self-publicity and self-promotion transmitted through a total determination to attend the opening of every abscess in town, to say nothing of envelopes, and to get in front of every camera that isn't marked "Westminster City Council". We might also set to editing the rest of the story with a two-handed Viking broadsword (Hack! Slash! Cleanse! Flense!), but there's them as likes that guff.


Laban said...

I think you misinterpret and it isn't a great revelation. I don't think she's aiming at a political mag, just changing the readership demographic a bit. 'Spectator's wife' is an imagined social type like 'Worcester woman'.

I like Zoe's "I don't know why I'm talking like this. I seem to have caught something from the book, a contagious mannered poshness"

Now where could Zoe (Godolphin and Latymer, Lincoln College Oxford) have picked that poshness up from?

Dan said...

Having worked for Ben Budworth before, I don't think he's that bothered ... he just likes to make a noise. It doesn't have to be particularly targetted noise.

ejh said...

Blimey. I'd forgotten she read Modern History at Lincoln College Oxford. I suppose if I'd played my cards right I could be interviewing Boris' sister myself. And I had eight years' start.

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