The phone rang: Would I be interested in buying The Spectator? In the days when owning such a thing conferred a degree of influence, I was the owner of a newspaper press, writes Peter Coleman.
With printing usually among the biggest of a publisher’s costs, the ability to absorb it inhouse was a considerable asset, and a negotiable one.
Not all the calls were from someone with something to sell, of course. Once a call purporting to be on behalf of one Robert Maxwell, asked whether we would sell the business… and the press, of course.
We weren’t interested – Maxwell was infamous in those days for his last-minute deal-changes – and we heard later that his acquisition of a contract printer further up England’s east coast had caused quite a stir. Mostly because Maxwell – who owned the Daily Mirror in those days – learned firsthand that printers “out in the sticks” we buying newsprint much cheaper than he was.
But that’s another story.
I mention this “flashback” from the 1970s as there are currently reports that Rupert Murdoch might be interested in buying The Spectator in the informal “auction” process being engineered by Lloyds Bank to resolve its financial relationship with the Barclay family. Only The Spectator, mind you, and not the Daily Telegraph, which is being offered in the same process.
A process complicated incidentally, by reports that the Barclays had offered Lloyds £1bn (A$1.93 billion) to “re-secure” the titles.
The Spectator is a publication of superlatives. Its website modestly claims it to be “the best-written and most influential weekly in the English language.
“Our writers have no party line; their only allegiance is to clarity of thought, elegance of expression and independence of opinion. Our writers’ opinions range from left to right, their circumstances from high life to low life. None make any pretence at being impartial: our motto is ‘firm, but unfair’.”
Established in 1828 – only 30 years before the masthead we used to print on the press I mentioned – it also dedicates a page to its tax strategy, announcing that it engages with the UK tax authorities “in a spirit of co-operative compliance”. As you would.
There have been a few owners over the years, and a few famous editors, among them former UK prime minister Boris Johnson and former cabinet members Iain Macleod and Nigel Lawson.
Not that that has precluded it from having an Australian edition since 2008 – interleaved with 12 pages of Aussie politics and affairs – and a monthly US version since 2019.
Nine Entertainment’s Australian Financial Review described The Spectator as “an establishment bastion ripe for the plucking” by Murdoch, who it described as “famously anti-establishment”.
Importantly, all this prompts the thought that, relieved of his duties as News co-chairman, Murdoch might actually be allowed to buy another publication in the UK, where his share of voice is relatively more modest than it is in Australia.
The AFR posits that its “feisty coterie of columnists” could be “a handy adornment to the fledgling TV and radio stations” News has launched under the banner of The Times… a masthead the political coverage of which (quoting the AFR again) “cleaves a lot closer to the centre than Fox News”.
There are other interested parties, of course, but most are primarily interested in the Telegraph, and KRM has a history of getting what he wants. My ‘missed opportunity’ of course, is long past... and I’m not sure how it would have fittd the local newspaper stable we then had.
But interesting times.
Watch this space.