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12 April 2023

Ian Hargreaves on 110 years of the New Statesman: “Mandelson was a charmer and a bully”

The journalist and academic recalls his time as the magazine’s editor, 1996-1998.

By Melissa Denes

Looking back over the issues of the New Statesman he edited, Ian Hargreaves was pleased to see that he had increased the cover price on his May 1997 Labour landslide collectors’ edition, from £2 to £3.50. Peter Mandelson liked that issue, too. “He was a charmer and a bully, and I remember him congratulating me ­because it was so full of enthusiastic assessments of Tony Blair – he thought we should do it every week.”

This was the challenge of his editorship: how to cover the New Labour project without becoming part of it. A new breed of spin doctors – Alastair Campbell, Mandelson and Charlie Whelan – were regularly in touch. “They were utterly different, but not unreasonably all felt they had some entitlement to push their demands. I listened to what they said, and then made my own mind up.”

While excited by the possibilities of Blair’s premiership, Hargreaves was never a Labour Party member: in his view, it made being “fair-minded” more difficult. His ambition for the NS was “not to become a noisy promo sheet, but to take what Labour was doing seriously, and to bring in alternative lines of thinking wherever we could”. He recalls a “great array of talent” among his colleagues, who included Darcus Howe, John Lloyd, books editor Peter Wilby, and columnists Mary Riddell and Laurie Taylor.

Hargreaves left after two years to teach at Cardiff University. “Was it too short a time to edit the NS? Yes. But I had become increasingly interested in the digitalisation of news, and of life in general.” He has stayed in Cardiff and in 2012 was awarded a CBE – though when Princess Anne handed him his medal she said, “It says here you’ve got this for your work in the creative economy. What is that?”

Hargreaves sees in today’s magazine an answer to the same challenge he faced 27 years ago. “The New Statesman has never been a super-tanker in terms of size or resources, and that has made it tremendously good at finding great writers, photographers and artists.” He treasures a Ralph Steadman cartoon, still pinned to his office wall, of a figure yelling from an open-top car: “To everyone who told me I’d go nowhere in life: I can’t hear you.”

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As the last editor to oversee a swing from a Conservative to a Labour government, does he have any advice for the months ahead? “Remember you’re journalists not politicians. Don’t ever get into a position where you cannot say what you believe to be true.”

[See also: “It was an absolute riot”: Nine New Statesman political editors reunite]

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue