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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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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