A depressing Prospect: Alan Rusbridger's 'one last job' is a symbol of a zombie industry

They'll have to prise Vogue from Anna Wintour's cold dead hand.

Previously: The imaginary student: Alan Rusbridger is selling the same free speech myths as every right-wing columnist


In his chronicle of taking his arseholery international How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, infamously inept stag-do organiser, self-appointed fake union general secretary, desperate wife guy, and writer, I guess Toby Young recounts a speech Graydon Carter, the leonine egotist editor of Vanity Fair, delivered to him on his first day there:

You think you’ve arrived, doncha?” I hate to break it to you but you’re only in the first room. It’s not nothing — don’t get me wrong — but it’s not that great either. Believe me, there are plenty of people in this town who got to the first room and then didn’t get any further.

After a year or so, maybe longer, you’ll discover a secret doorway at the back of the first room that leads to the second room. In time, if you’re lucky, you’ll discover a doorway at the back of the second room that leads to the third. There are seven rooms in total and you’re in the first. Doncha forget it.

While it is enjoyable to picture Carter as a deeply pretentious minotaur in the middle of a media maze, the doors are entirely metaphorical.

Carter spent 25 years as the editor of Vanity Fair1, finally ‘stepping down’ aged 68. In 2017, he was given the honour of being allowed to say he leapt rather than being pushed. He was 43 when he took over the title, transmogrifying quickly from the anti-establishment, bomb-thrower that he pretended to be as one of the co-founders of the vituperative Spy magazine into a Truman Capote with more confidence and less-originality, bending the knee to wealth and celebrity with unseemly alacrity.

In 2019, the journalist Vicky Ward repeated an earlier claim that Carter spiked a piece attempting to expose Jeffrey Epstein back in 2003. The magazine published what she said was a much softer version headlined The Talented Mr. Epstein, referencing Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley and nodding and winking to the true darkness at the heart of his potempkin empire. The lede read:

Lately, Jeffrey Epstein’s high-flying style has been drawing oohs and aahs: the bachelor financier lives in New York’s largest private residence, claims to take only billionaires as clients, and flies celebrities including Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey on his Boeing 727. But pierce his air of mystery and the picture changes. Vicky Ward explores Epstein’s investment career, his ties to retail magnate Leslie Wexner, and his complicated past…

Ward had first discussed the decision to tone down the Vanity Fair Epstein profile in a piece for The Daily Beast in 2015. After discussing threats to both herself and Carter she wrote:

I worked through December 2002 like a dog. I worked with three fact-checkers, the magazine’s lawyer; I sifted through everything Epstein threw at me and defused it. We were getting ready to go to press. And then the bullet came. “Graydon’s taking out the women from the piece,” Doug Stumpf, my editor, told me.

I began to cry. It was so wrong. The family had been so brave. I thought about the mother, her fear of the dark, of the harm she feared might come to her daughters. And then I thought of all the rich, powerful men in suits ready to talk about Epstein’s “great mind.”

“Why?” I asked Graydon. “He’s sensitive about the young women” was his answer. “And we still get to run most of the piece.”

… It came down to my sources’ word against Epstein’s… and at the time Graydon believed Epstein. In my notebook I have him saying, “I believe him… I’m Canadian.”

In 2019, speaking to The New York Times and clearly very aware of Carter’s continuing power in the media industry, Ward said:

I understand there are instances where editors make decisions that reporters disagree with. I happen to think this was a wrong decision.

Carter was interviewed by The New York Times ten days after Ward’s claims appeared again the paper. Presumably this section of the conversation was conducted with straight faces…

[David Marchese for The New York Times] There’s definitely a belief out there that wheel-greasing goes on between editors and subjects at a publication like Vanity Fair. Maybe I’m being cynical, but because some wheel-greasing in more unserious instances seems likely, it is easy to conflate that with what is supposed to have happened with the Epstein profile. Is that not what happened? 

[Graydon Carter] I do not recall a single incident of what you call wheel-greasing in my 25 years there.

You’re telling me that neither wheel-greasing nor making editorial decisions based on personal considerations regarding subjects ever occurred at Vanity Fair? 

I can’t remember a single one.

… and Carter kept his grease-stained hands behind his back throughout.

After 25 years in the seventh room, Carter couldn’t shake the need to be there and co-founded a new publication, Air Mail2, with the backing of private equity money and the continued strategy of cosying up to the rich.

Carter’s generation will not retire. They are the Rolling Stones of magazine editors, unwilling and perhaps unable to get off the stage. But unlike the Stones, who rattle on but do not actually dominate the charts or deny younger stars a chance to step on the stage, old editors who refuse to relinquish the chair stop successors from moving up the ladder.

Ian Hislop graduated from Oxford in 1981 and immediately began working at Private Eye. At 26, he was made editor, replacing Richard Ingrams who was just 48 but had been editing the Eye for 23 years at that point. Hislop has now been in the chair for 35 years and seems in no hurry to vacate it. He’s good at his job, still has his own teeth, and doesn’t seem tired of fighting the magazine’s forever war. But he also got a long run to become that good.

When Ingrams stepped down as Private Eye’s editor — he’s still chairman of its holding company and a regular presence at its office — he went on to be the founder and first editor of The Oldie. That magazine is now edited by Harry Mount3, who at 50 years old is 11 years younger than Hislop, and 21 years younger than Anna Wintour, the Editor-in-Chief of that bible of fashionable youth Vogue. David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, is 12 years older than the Oldie editor and has held the position for 24 years.

And now Alan Rusbridger, who, after retiring as Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian in aged 62 after 20 years in the job, seemed to be settling in to a life as a grandee (Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and a presence on a range of worthy and unworthy boards4), is back for “one last job”. He was announced as the next editor of Prospect, the house journal of chin-stroking technocratic liberals, earlier this week.

Inevitably there was much rejoicing among British hacks hoping for some commissions from the once and future king. And the easy critique of this edition of the newsletter will be that I’m just rehashing the old hippy credo “don’t trust anyone over thirty” (I’m 37) and suggesting that over 50 should be shipped off to that farm upstate where all our pets go to live forever and ever. But that’s not it.

Journalism is a moribund industry, especially in the UK, which frequrntly talks to itself, about itself, with an occasional bout of handwringing about diversity and what the “future” will be like. When editors who have had their imperial era at the top come back — like an old boxer strapping on the gloves again — it’s not a sign of a healthy business but of a world in which talent is squandered.

If big figures routinely spend 25 years in the gilded cage of the editor’s office, the publications they lead tend to become fiefdoms. They cannot and demonstrably do not move with the times in the way magazines and newspapers that have a flow of talent can and do.

Harold Evans, who Rusbridger rightly lauds, became editor of The Sunday Times at 39. He edited the title for 13 years and moved to edit The Times for one unhappy year aged 53 under the new proprietor, some awful Australian bloke called Rupert Murdoch.

Evans didn’t try to recapture his success in the UK but instead moved to the US in 1984 with his wife, Tina Brown — another legendary editor — teaching at Duke and Yale, holding senior editorial roles at The Atlantic, US News & World Report, founding Conde Nast Traveller, and becoming president of Random House.5

But Rusbridger wants the thrill of being an editor back. It doesn’t matter that as well as his job at Lady Margaret Hall (from which he’s stepping down), he’s also on the Facebook Oversight Board, Chair of the Reuters Institute for The Study of Journalism, on the board of the National Theatre, and contributing to the Irish government’s Future of Media Commission — he wants his name on a masthead again and Prospect offers that… uh… prospect.

At the bottom of the journalistic ladder, new entrants are paid a pittance to crank out SEO-friendly crap (unless they’re related to someone, in which case they get a column) while at the top people like Rusbridger simply will not leave. They still exist in the world of lavish expenses, huge salaries, and job titles that indicate their seniority through their simplicity — Editor always beats Senior Contributing Writer (Biscuits & Assorted).

Perhaps Amol Rajan — now continuing his ascent through the BBC — put a curse on young editors when he took charge of The Independent at 29, hastening the print version into a (slightly) early grave. Andrew Neil was just 33 when he took the helm at The Sunday Times. Its current editor, Emma Tucker is 53 and may be the last independent editor of the title as Murdoch makes moves to ‘rationalise’ The Times and Sunday Times editorial teams. John Witherow, editor of The Times, is 69 and presides over a similarly aged team of columnists.

To return to an earlier point, it’s far from healthy that the editor of The Times is almost 20 years older than the editor of… The Oldie. I hear on what seems like a weekly basis about executives meeting to discuss how they can get more young people to read a newspaper or pick up a magazine. Clearly they think appointing more sexagenarians — not remotely as hot as it sounds — to lead is the answer.

Tina Brown was 25 when she brought Tatler back to life, 30 when she became Editor-in-Chief of Vanity Fair, and 39 when she took over at The New Yorker, becoming only the fourth editor in its history. At each of those titles she injected new urgentcy, new ideas, and a new perspective. Of course, we live in a very different time when executives are even more fearful of risk, but simply leaning on the same old editors with the same old ideas isn’t the answer.

I’m sure the prospect at Alan Rushbridger at Prospect is comforting to its owners and freelancers in search of a new commission but it’s a dread sign for an industry already stuffed with zombies.

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1

Toby Young managed a year, during which he contributed just 3,000 words to the magazine but was paid $85,000.

2

The Nation accurately pegged it as a newsletter for the “rich and boring” and “an exercise in misplaced nostalgia for the heyday of glossy magazines.”

3

How did Mount, a member of the Bullingdon Club and son of former TLS editor, Thacher advisor, and current Sunday Times columnist Sir Ferdinand Mount manage this amazing feat? Pure talent, I’d guess.

4

Yes, Facebook Oversight Board, I’m talking about you.

5

It was Evans who secured the rights to Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father for $40,000 right at the beginning of the future president’s political career.