A battle with The Daily Beast

Did Tina Brown jump or was she pushed?

On 2 August 1999, under the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour, Talk magazine held its launch party. It was “impossibly glamorous”, according to the New York Times, with a guest list that had Henry Kissinger rubbing shoulders with Queen Latifah, Madonna and Salman Rushdie. At the centre of it all was Tina Brown, the founder of Talk and serially victorious media darling.

Brown had every reason to believe that Talk would be a success: she had been editorin- chief of Tatler at the age of 25, of Vanity Fair at 31 and of the New Yorker at 39, overhauling editorial boards and boosting circulation beyond expectations each time. In the end, Talk folded after the advertising slump that followed the 9/11 attacks, but not before it had published a series of scandalous interviews, including one with Hillary Clinton in which she blamed her husband’s philandering on childhood abuse.

In 2008, after a brief spell as a talk-show host for CNBC, Brown founded the news website the Daily Beast, which was supposed to be her proof that she could win on the web as she had in print. This decision had little to do with money – the advance for her biography of Diana the previous year was, she said, “not unadjacent” to $2m – and everything to do with ambition.

However, something clearly got lost in translation from print to online. Since the Beast’s disastrous merger with the moribund Newsweek in 2010, which was repeatedly criticised in public by her business partner, Barry Diller, Brown’s illustrious career has floundered.

And, on 12 September, it seems to have come to a sudden stop with the announcement that Brown will not have her contract renewed at the Beast. She is now devoting her time to ensuring as dignified a departure as possible.

What made Brown so irritating to a horde of jealous and grudging admirers was her ability to navigate a respectable media career and at the same time intersperse it with unashamed gaudiness. The launch of Talk magazine at the foot of the Statue of Liberty was tacky and her book The Diana Chronicles was deemed not “literary enough” to befit a former editor of the  , yet she endured.

One of Brown’s most engaging talents is her absolute commitment to that antijournalistic device, the ad hominem attack. In an article she wrote for the New Statesman in 1974 about her Oxford finals, she referred to a fellow student as a “tiny self-possessed figure with wall-to-wall halitosis”.

More recently, she described the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, on Twitter as “a creepy, lisping, giraffe-necked liar”. Because sometimes a political attack just won’t do.

Happily for those of us who enjoy personal takedowns of malodorous students and the president of Syria, Brown won’t be retiring into obscurity. With characteristic initiative, she has established Tina Brown Live Media, an events business specialising in conferencing. Such a venture did risk leaving her with a tiny amount of leisure time – a risk that she has negated by agreeing to write a memoir, reportedly titled Media Beast.

So, we needn’t feel bad for Tina Brown, who has conquered and rebuilt so many worlds and remains as rich, well connected and happily married (to the former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans) as any lifetime media mogul could hope to be.

It is not surprising that she would leap straight from the industry that has fallen out of love with her and into another. But did she jump or was she pushed?

Tina Brown speaks at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in her capacity as editor-in-chief of Newsweek The Daily Beast. Image: Getty
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain