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  • Writer's pictureJonny Ainslie

Caroline Law - The Magazine reflects what we have chosen

Updated: Mar 29, 2019

The Editor of The Week magazine sits down to discuss our need to stay informed, and the dangers of knowing too much.

“All you need to know about everything that matters” is The Week’s signature boast; what do you think drives people to want to remain informed?

I sometimes wonder: does it really matter if we don’t know that a thousand people have just been killed in Mozambique by a huge typhoon? Does our knowing this make any difference? It’s a philosophical question really, why we want to feel informed. There are some very basic reasons – so people can take part in debate, whether it’s just at home or as part of a social situation, or at work; people like to feel that they can answer the questions. I’m quite conscious with The Week that we are arming people with the information that’ll make them feel confident with their status, almost, so they’re confident to discuss ‘issues’. We used to bike the magazine weekly to Ian Hislop for Have I Got News For You, and then I’d feel terribly guilty if he couldn’t answer the questions and we’d failed to provide him with what he needed. Ultimately it’s a community thing isn’t it.

Are the vast popularity of political debate podcasts, and call-ins to radio like LBC, or lecture organisations like Intelligence Squared, signs that Britain is eager to engage with a rich, national, public life?

I think so. People are all private and public individuals, aren’t they? Very few people like to imagine that their lives are solely based around their private selves. The ways of engaging with community have changed radically, and without the information there’s no engagement.

We're looking for the detail that helps somebody understand.

Some of the The Week’s unique style is its assemblage of different points of view on a single topic into one piece – almost as if they were talking to one another on the page. Does your magazine thrive on argument, or try to find clarity?

Very well put, and I think definitely both. I can only assume that people who read The Week like to know what both sides are saying. My father used to read a newspaper that was the other side of his political views because he loved the feeling of fury it gave him. But you can equally read both sides because you don’t believe in certainty, or so that you can hone your arguments and shout down your opponents. We thrive on arguments because we find it more interesting to listen to the debate in its round.

You have revealed that your old boss at The Oldie, Richard Ingrams, was something of a personal saviour. How so?

I’d been working in publishing in a most depressing job, and was at quite a low ebb personally; going to The Oldie was just the most tremendous fun. It changed my life from a personal and professional point of view, but more the personal than anything else. Work suddenly seemed like something that you could enjoy rather than dread and detest and feel sick about. If you’re lucky you can find a job that you’re quite happy to go to.

You stayed for two years at The Oldie as assistant and sub editor, then moved to The Week as assistant editor, deputy – and then full Editor; a career in edit. What’s is it about the work that you do enjoy?

The Week is such an usual magazine I don’t know that my job is anything like anybody else’s job as Editor of a magazine, because I do a very specific thing: choosing what we put in – under discussion, of course, but it’s also quite a lot of writing. I edit other people’s copy, I edit in the sense of curating if you want to use that word, I also edit by improving and changing people’s copy, and write some of the content. There are obviously bits I enjoy more than others, but it is a pretty good thing to spend your days focussing on a very wide range of current affairs stories. It makes life ever-changing, even though in its structure, my weeks are exactly the same. When the production editor turns round and says “have you got…” I’ll know what she’s going to ask me because we work to such a rigid timetable - in a way it’s like being in The Truman Show.

Traditional or not, so much of an Editor’s job remains tacit. I get the sense that there’s a lot more of your input that goes in, that you don’t let on about.

I don’t give interviews, we don’t push ourselves forward, we don’t have our photographs on the website for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that it’s not supposed to be about us. I don’t want a public profile, I don’t have a public profile, and I don’t think I should have a public profile. I don’t particularly want people to read The Week and think about what I’m doing. We’re giving them other people’s voices, and though quite a lot of work goes into recasting other newspapers into our format, it’s not a cut and paste job by a long chalk, they’re not our opinions.

Yesterday I had the task of reading all the reports from the Christchurch massacre, which meant a file of about a hundred pages of cuttings – at some point you have to stop collecting them, and it makes for very distressing reading. But then I’ve got to change all of that into a nine-hundred-word piece. It’s definitely written, but just using other people’s source material. Of course you make a choice, and the choice is your own – you’d be mad to deny selection bias, but I think what makes The Week successful is that the people who run it are not very certain people. It’s quite easy for us to not push our own agendas as we don’t really have one. Everyone has an opinion about individual stories, but I recoil at certainty. Partly because I’ve been doing this so long - every time I see an argument I wonder what the counter argument is going to be. I find people who are so certain… bemusing. I don’t know how they do it.

It’s also quite fun to surprise people. You might end up on a Sunday Times point of view one time, and then bring in some millennial writing for the Independent to the next piece. Keep the readers guessing a bit. It’s so boring when you know where you’re going to go.

You do try to pick a range of sources, from tabloid, to high-brow or online stuff.

I suppose we’re trying to do two things; we’d want to make sure there’s balance, but balance isn’t everything. Sometimes there isn’t much counter opinion or they’re just not very illuminating, so you’re looking for what’s really interesting, for what’s revealing – the detail that helps somebody understand.

I’m drawn to this idea that your submersion in the news is a deeply personal business. So much so that you keep it quite private, you are also married to the magazine’s Editor in Chief; would it be too far off to suggest that The Week is a product of a very personal vision?

Of course. Sometimes I think to myself: Jeremy and I have been doing this for pretty much ever, with other people; the magazine reflects what we have chosen for the last twenty years. It appeals to however many thousands of readers, let’s say 200,000, who say they like what we choose. If they got a new Editor, they might come up with a whole lot of different choices that those 200,000 people might not like – or that might appeal to 500,000 different readers, but they’re not the readers we have, so that might be quite problematic.

“All you need to know about everything that matters” is a boast as you say, it’s not literally true – how could it be? But we do really mind if I realise we’ve fallen for something that’s propaganda. It really bothers me if we miss an important story, and I feel responsible if we don’t tell the readers something that we feel is important for them to know. Why it’s important for them to know goes back to your first question, and I don’t know why that is, but I feel… I worry that we’re not covering Yemen often enough, or too much, and I’m sure that most Editors feel like that. People aren’t paying an insubstantial amount, and you want to provide them with something that’s good, and reliable, and true. I’m sure we’re not always – but the advantage of being a weekly as opposed to a daily and sourcing your material from the dailies is that you do have a chance to strain it.

There’s a lot going on to divert people’s attention when they’re in their own homes

You construct a vision of British national life. From the arguments to the theatre, the character study, sports, even a recap of The Archers, all this suggests you have a particular reader in mind.

Ye-es. It’s an interesting one, the inclusion of The Archers, or Desert Island Discs. Though maybe less so for the latter which is another form of celebrity tittle-tattle. But I did hear that Clive Stafford Smith, the lawyer who runs Reprieve, and who is doing this incredibly important job campaigning for people on death row, went on Desert Island Discs and chose a load of very silly songs for reasons he could explain on the programme. He was appalled to hear that we’d just listed them blankly, it made him look quite ridiculous. I guess when the magazine was started twenty three years ago it was targeting a more specific demographic at that point – and I think that it branded the magazine in a Radio 4 kind of way. I don’t know how many of our readers do listen to The Archers anymore, but it’s part of the magazine’s identity, and I think people would be sad to see it go even if they never read that little box.

The Dennis Publishing Website lists The Week’s core readership as 35-54, “at the peak of their profession and earning power” – and your pages do often have adverts for luxury products like Patek Philippe watches. Could your output be seen as rather exclusive?

If you are giving people fairly serious political news, you probably are looking at a slightly older readership. I can’t speak for today’s twenty-somethings but when I was young I bought The Guardian, but I never read it. An interest in reading a broad breadth of opinion tends to be something you grow into. Increasingly of course if you’re young you don’t read a print product at all – our website is totally different and I don’t have anything to do with it. Anyway, we may appeal to that older demographic but I don’t feel like I’m targeting them – we’re careful not to assume our readers are all off on safari. Our travel pages are billed as ‘the dream of the week’, I don’t ever go on those holidays.

People write in sometimes to say that they’re upset by the property spread because they just couldn’t begin to afford any of them, and it felt like a slap in the face. It is aspirational if you like – but the fact is, if we did affordable properties then they just wouldn’t be that interesting. People would look at Zoopla if that’s what they wanted to see.

Though we have this readership that advertisers are sometimes interested in – correspondence shows me anecdotal evidence of a different story. I don’t know how to express this but I’ve had on the same day the Marchioness of something or other, and a man who lived in Grimsby. I got a letter I loved a few years ago from a twenty four year old personal trainer who was given the magazine by her grandparents, horrified that she was reading Heat magazine – which they found disgusting, and this woman was initially aghast at a seemingly dreary present - but said that she’d really started to love it, and started to take an interest in current affairs for the first time in her life. Demographic figures suggest that our readers are concentrated at one end of the spectrum, but we do have a breadth – and it’s the same for every newspaper. The Guardian are always suggesting their readers go to Soho House for the weekend, which I find slightly surprising, or advising them to buy a piece of luggage for £500.

Suggesting that the public have had enough of Brexit, you used your Editor’s Letter last week to cut focus to the issue of 7000 headteachers writing to 3.5m parents about a lack of school funding. How do you usually use your corner of the magazine?

What’s frustrating for journalists is that Brexit has gobbled up all the bandwidth. Obviously that applies most to Whitehall, where you get the impression that nothing is being done about anything, but it’s a similar story in newspapers. I picked up that story because I was feeling frustrated that I thought we might do an interesting feature about whether there was a school crisis and what it amounted to, but it just didn’t appear. So I wrote about it instead.

What sort of news does often get hidden?

What would the news be if it wasn’t Brexit? I don’t know more than anybody else, but I do read a lot of newspapers and I do see stories and think “why is this only on page ten? Why is nobody picking this up?” But I don’t know why. And sometimes I guess an Editor somewhere else hasn’t been engaged by it. But they’ve got Brexit to worry about. It’s a curious thing… columnists have a certain amount of freedom but they’re constrained by their Editors, you would have thought they might have wanted to move on. Someone at Radio 4 told me that because they have Brexit every single day, nobody knew any longer what was actually important in this hideous process. I think there are some columnists who literally haven’t written about anything else for two years – but I’m not in that world.

There’s a visible thread in your editorial letters that’s concerned with the excesses of consumerism.

There’s a couple of things going on in those letters. One, it’s extremely difficult to say anything in that very small space, and the other is that it’s not a space for us to vent opinion very strongly. I find it difficult to explain a point quickly that’s not massively controversial, and that you can find some detail in. Plastic waste does interest me, but it’s also something that people can engage with.

Perhaps I just read too many newspapers

In July last year, you wrote about the dangers we open ourselves up to when letting smart gadgets into our homes “surrendering control… for the thrill of something new.” More recently, you suggested that to solve the mountain of waste we produce, “we’ll have to agree to build a new social and economic order”. That second one really is quite a call to arms for a magazine intent on summary.

If you try to save the environment to the extent that needs to be done, that will require a whole new world. We haven’t even talked about that, and I don’t know what it’ll look like. We need The Economist to come and tell us how we’re going to cope in a world without plastic or computers and mobile phones.

I suppose sometimes when I write those things I’m just raising the point. The British press lacks that slightly pulled back focus – though it’s not that they don’t want to do that, The Guardian long reads are very good, it’s just very difficult and very expensive. It takes time to find stuff out. And in the unfocussed age we live, I wonder if people really will sit down and read about what would happen if we tackle the e-waste crisis - my attention span’s not what it was. There’s a lot going on to divert people’s attention when they’re in their own homes, which there simply wasn’t before with three channels on the telly.

Even your pieces are all, on the App especially, bite-sized.

Yes. We are obviously short-form. Some people are just news junkies who don’t want to miss a damn thing, they read all the regular papers and The Week, but other people may spend two hours reading the Literary Review, say, and we could free people up to have an overview – whilst focussing on their special interest. I’d like to think people can then sit down and read Tolstoy.

I suppose laptops and phones were meant to free people up too.

It’s like so many things… supposed to make life quicker but in the end you just get bogged down. The internet hasn’t sped things up – it just makes things more complicated. Taking the laptop home hasn’t made people work less, it’s made them work more. Our job has changed a lot from the days when we’d have copies of the newspapers in the office and when we wanted to check a detail we’d have to… you know I don’t remember how we did check a detail. Look it up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica or something, I can’t remember how that worked. So now of course it’s limitless, the amount of sources we can check; I’m finding new news websites all the time in this country – let alone before you start getting the American press involved or all the rest. This whole world of infinite possibility is really quite exhausting. Sometimes I think The Week’s survived the digital revolution because it’s something that people can start and finish. There’s a sense of completeness.

You recently recalled The Guardian ‘Points of View’ ad from the mid-80s (in an article about the American teenagers, Black Hebrew Israelites, & Native American protesters caught up in an internet firestorm), commenting on how often we still rush to judgement despite the smartphone’s ability to provide the whole picture. You added a cynical quip: “with cases like this, you start to wonder if no picture might be preferable.”

It’s not supposed to be cynical, but sometimes you have to wonder whether too much information is good for us. There was a horrendous story in the papers a couple of weeks ago about a carnival parade in a town outside Brussels, where one of the floats was monstrously anti-Semitic. In cases like that, the truth is hardly arguable. But confrontations like the one that inspired the editorial can be fleeting and highly ambiguous. Even when you’ve got the wrong angle, it doesn’t stop the story coming out. Which is wearying. And always being able to find out exactly how bad everyone is all the time, that your heroes, inevitably, have feet of clay – I’m not sure where it gets us. But perhaps I just read too many newspapers.

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