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Last Updated: Friday, 25 February, 2005, 11:47 GMT
Watching The Spectator
By David Jeffcock & Patrick Forbes

How did one magazine provide the leading players in some of the biggest news stories of the past eight months? A glimpse behind the scenes gives some clues.

In January 2004, at the BBC's suggestion, we first approached the Spectator to talk about the possibility of making a documentary about the magazine - as the tousled Mr Johnson would have it, "the mouse that roars".

Despite its relatively small circulation the magazine wields enormous influence, as the ideological clearing house and social meeting place of the Conservative elite.

A series of increasingly bizarre meetings took place with Boris - distracted at the office, with him on the phone to a battered Andrew Gilligan, post Hutton; famished at the House of Commons tea room, worrying about the plight of the opposition; and then finally round at his agent, where she enumerated the enormous number of Boris' commitments - the novel, the editorship, the front bench job that would make this a risky undertaking.

Spinfest

Each time Boris would indicate that he wanted to do the programme - but somehow the agreement never got signed...

And then we watched aghast as a series of high-profile news stories over the next six months ended up with the sacking of a Conservative Front bench spokesman and the resignation of a home secretary.

Man Utd supporters taunt Liverpool at Anfield
The Spectator's opinions struck a chord on the football terraces

We saw the ousting of one of Britain's most powerful press barons, the break-up of a marriage chronicled in less than loving detail, and an unprecedented spinfest as powerful camps at the heart of Britain's power elite slugged it out after an affair turned sour.

Bafflingly, the common link between all these stories was the very same tiny right-wing magazine in Bloomsbury - The Spectator.

By looking at the history of the magazine, and constitution of the British establishment, we sought to answer the very same questions that first prompted our interest - why and how do the words and deeds of those involved in the magazine have such an impact?

It just seemed like a very small revenge
Rachel Royce
Rod Liddle's estranged wife
In July an affair between columnist Rod Liddle and receptionist Alicia Munckton was the catalyst for nine articles in the Daily Mail, written by Rod Liddle's estranged wife, Rachel Royce. She detailed her increasingly elaborate ruses for trying to catch her husband out. No holds were barred.

"In the scheme of how hurt I was about what he'd done to me - leaving our honeymoon early to spend a week with his mistress, lying to me for months and months about the affair - it just seemed like a very small revenge," she says.

'Hooked on grief'

The tabloids looked at the magazine with renewed interest. Soon it would be dubbed "The Sextator". In a case of what he himself reportedly called "The Socialist meets The Socialite," the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, was revealed to be having an affair with the publisher - or business manager - of The Spectator, Kimberly Fortier (as she then was).

Boris Johnson in Liverpool
A repentant Johnson in the eye of a Liverpool storm
After this story had - seemingly - died down, The Spectator was in the news again. But not for a love affair. A leading article in the magazine accused Liverpool of "mawkish sentimentality," of being "hooked on grief".

By this time Boris Johnson was a member of the Opposition front bench - the first time in its history, and possibly the last, that its editor combined these two roles. He'd become MP for Henley in 2001. But the circumstances were controversial. He seems to have promised his boss Conrad Black, the Spectator's proprietor from 1988 to 2004, that he wouldn't stand.

Mr Black says: "Confronted with this, Boris, in his manner which I don't doubt has served him well from when he was a very little boy, confessed quite openly that indeed he had misled us but he had done so out of perhaps an excess of patriotic zeal and desire to serve the nation, and, you know, 'they don't build statues to journalists, do they?' and this kind of thing."

It was a ludicrous day, it was like something out of the Keystone Kops. Perfect Boris Johnson. Terrible politics
Quentin Letts
Daily Mail
Now, after The Spectator's article on Liverpool, Tory leader Michael Howard sent Boris to apologise.

"We charged around Liverpool looking for him, because this was meant to be his great public mea culpa," says Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts.

"And he didn't want the press anywhere near him. It was a ludicrous day, it was like something out of the Keystone Kops. Perfect Boris Johnson. Terrible politics."

Sacked

Boris himself offers a novel take on placating an entire city:

"That's the funny thing, about being at the eye (of the storm), like anyone at the eye, you don't notice it," he says.

"I was just making a few points, trying to get my point of view across, trying to apologise for those things that I felt I should apologise for, trying to explain exactly what the intention of the article was...and it felt completely painless."

Conrad Black
Conrad Black was stung by Spectator criticisms
The next month, Boris Johnson was sacked from the front bench, after misleading Michael Howard about yet another Spectator story - the news that he had had an affair with Petronella Wyatt, a long-standing colleague on the magazine. He'd previously denounced the story as "an inverted pyramid of piffle".

"Boris is a wonderful phraseologist, he can coin them just like that," says Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. "'An inverted pyramid of piffle' is pure Boris. And pure suicide."

By now Conrad Black had been ousted from the company that owned The Spectator, accused by disgruntled shareholders of "aggressive looting" of the company.

The Spectator weighed in itself, as Conrad Black was being ousted as chairman. In an otherwise ambivalent article, he was accused of "stolidity, clumsiness and provincialism," and "unabashed vulgarity".

Taking sides

His response: "Boris has his charms, but Boris is not Mr Loyalty."

Conrad Black's difficulties were then pushed off the front pages by the return of the Blunkett-Fortier saga.

After an astonishing battle in the public prints, David Blunkett resigned. The Spectator had weighed in on Fortier's side, printing four articles in her cause.

We have people working for us who know Kimberly, we have people working for us who know Blunkett
Dominic Lawson
Sunday Telegraph editor
As Boris points out: "We wanted to support our publisher. I mean that's a natural thing to any publication to want to do. You know, Kimberly works in this office. Of course you're going to feel committed to her point of view."

In this press blitzkrieg former Spectator editor Dominic Lawson - now editor of the Sunday Telegraph - was to play a crucial role, publishing stories unearthed from both camps.

"We have people working for us who know Kimberly, we have people working for us who know Blunkett," he says. "

"What's not often reported is that the day that we reported on the help that he'd given for the nanny's visa, we also revealed that he was in fact William's father, that a DNA test had been carried out and that both of them knew it. Now you can be absolutely certain that Kimberly would have been furious that we revealed this, because of course she was very anxious that this not be the case and certainly not be known to be the case.

Kimberly Fortier and David Blunkett
The Sunday Telegraph says it never sided with Blunkett or Fortier
"So we have one story on the front page which is very much as it were in Blunkett's interest, we have one story that's very much in Kimberly's interest, and people are only asking me, 'Oh, did you not question why you got this story that helped Kimberly?' Why do people not ask me, 'How did you get the story that helped Blunkett?'"

The Spectator's legendary capacity for mischief-making remains undimmed.

The final irony, after an extraordinary six months, is the magazine's circulation has never been higher...


The Spectator Affair was broadcast on Saturday, 26 February, 2005 at 2100GMT on BBC Two.




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