The Spectator is a United Kingdom weekly first published in 1828. This purportedly makes it the longest-running magazine of its kind in the English-speaking world.
And while the primary focus is current affairs, the Spectator’s subject matter ranges further than that.
There’s lively coverage of books, music, film, TV, food and travel. From time to time, there’s even what could be characterized as gossip.
The Spectator professes certain values.
“Our writers,” it says, “have no party line; their only allegiance is to clarity of thought, elegance of expression and independence of opinion.”
Going further, it describes its motto as “firm, but unfair,” stressing that it makes no pretense at being impartial.
A wide range of people have certainly appeared in its pages over the decades.
Contributing politicians have included U.K. prime ministers of all stripes – Labour’s Clement Attlee, Liberal Lloyd George and Conservative Harold Macmillan.
There have even been a pair of infamous spies – Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt.
The great and the good of Britain’s literary world have also been well represented: poets John Masefield, W.H. Auden and John Betjeman; novelists Kingsley Amis, Hilary Mantel, E.M. Forster and Shiva Naipaul.
By now you get the drift. The Spectator has been a desirable, relevant platform for a long time.
If it hews to no party line, the magazine is generally conservative in political outlook. Still, it often strays from what you might expect.
For instance, in the 1950s it actively campaigned against capital punishment. The July 1955 execution of Ruth Ellis – the last woman hanged in the U.K. – was a particular catalyst.
The Spectator also opposed the British government’s handling of the 1956 Suez Crisis. The government in question was Conservative but that made no difference.
Today, one of the magazine’s most interesting characteristics is the extent to which it facilitates differing opinions. On the big issues, you’ll often find writers taking different sides.
Brexit, for example, is about as divisive a question as you can imagine. But notwithstanding its friendliness towards former editor Boris Johnson, the Spectator has published a full range of opinion and analysis.
Remainers like Matthew Parris, Robert Peston and Sir Ivan Rogers have been heard from again and again. If the Spectator was your only source of information, you wouldn’t have been deprived of the Remain perspective. In today’s ideologically curated media, that’s not faint praise.
Another illustration popped up last month.
J.K. Rowling’s withering indictment of cancel culture appeared in early July via an open letter co-signed by various other luminaries. The Spectator published it.
Then, later in the month, it featured Irish journalist Kevin Myers with a blistering piece entitled “Welcome to the world you created, J.K. Rowling.”
Myers wasn’t arguing in favour of cancel culture. Not by any stretch.
But drawing from his own bitter experience, he was highlighting the earlier role Rowling played in promulgating it. He was one of her victims.
In 2017, Myers wrote a column that included an arguably ill-chosen turn of phrase. Within hours, his world caved in and he’d lost his job.
Myers was allegedly “anti-Semitic” and Rowling was one of his chief Twitter attackers. In his words, “When the fangs of Rowling’s Twitter followers close on their prey, there is only one outcome.”
It got worse, though.
With blood in the water, the mob started mining old columns for incriminating evidence and managed to come up with one where, taken out of context, Myers was portrayed as a self-confessed Holocaust denier. RTE – Ireland’s state broadcaster equivalent of Canada’s CBC – jumped into the act.
Eventually, Myers had a modicum of justice. He sued RTE and won. As part of the settlement, the broadcaster was required to apologize on air, explicitly acknowledging that the Holocaust denier suggestion was “untrue and defamatory.”
Once upon a time, I used to buy two U.K. weeklies. One was the Economist and the other was the New Statesman.
I dropped the New Statesman relatively early. Its left-wing politics resonated with me as an undergraduate but the allure faded before I hit 30.
The Economist hung around longer and I still pick it up from time to time. Comprehensive and informative, it fits nicely with a long plane journey. However, its smugness can grate and its conventional wisdom certainty doesn’t leave much room for contrary perspectives.
For that, try The Spectator.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.