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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.