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16 March 2022

Peter Wilby’s Diary: Remembering Bruce Page and how to house Ukrainians in need

The former editor of the New Statesman, who has died aged 85, had an unrivalled capacity for absorbing investigative detail.

By Peter Wilby

When Bruce Page, who has died aged 85, became the New Statesman editor in 1978, his first act was to tear up the style book. The magazine, in his view, had become the creature of an effete, dilettante literary culture. It needed to reinvent itself and develop a harder journalistic edge. Its business should be investigation and disclosure, not the publication of elegant and discursive essays written by Oxbridge arts graduates.

Page had previously been a leading light – many would say the leading light – on Harold Evans’s Sunday Times. As head of Insight, the paper’s groundbreaking investigative unit, he masterminded exposés of, for example, the drug thalidomide, which caused birth defects in thousands of children, and of Kim Philby, a Soviet agent who penetrated the highest levels of British intelligence. He had an unrivalled capacity for absorbing the detail needed to get to the heart of such stories and for presenting it in a compelling narrative.

Sadly, his formidable talents did not transfer easily to the NS. A weekly magazine needed a broader brush than Page, with his relentless focus on the gritty detail of government and business scandals, could provide. Moreover, the NS was then in long-term decline and strapped for cash. He had to contend with a company board split between Labour Party factions, and latterly with a lobby that wanted the NS to commit to the breakaway SDP. His editorship lasted four years, roughly par for the 13 NS editors who came and went in the 48 years after Kingsley Martin’s retirement in 1960.

Two men went to mow

As former Sunday Times hacks reminisced about Page, Peter Kellner, who worked with him at both the Sunday Times and the NS, recalled an old journalists’ parable. One evening, a reporter meets two men in the main street in the village. What, he asks, have they been doing all day? “We’ve been mowing the meadow,” says one. “No, we haven’t,” says the other. “We sat under a tree all day drinking beer.” A bad journalist, runs the parable, quotes just one of the men. A mediocre journalist quotes both. A good journalist goes and looks at the meadow.

“Bruce,” recalled Kellner, “would not only have looked at the meadow. He would have tracked down its owner, checked what he paid his workers and tested the soil for pesticides.” This, after all, was the man who mugged up on organic chemistry so that he could better understand thalidomide. As Kellner says, not just a good journalist, but a great one.

Errors of judgement

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This is a time when many on the left (and, I would hope, the right) must re-examine past judgements. For example, I thought that successive governments were right to cut defence budgets from 1990 onwards and should have cut deeper; that pundits who warned of potential Russian aggression were guilty of Cold War-style paranoia; that the US and Britain were right not to intervene militarily when chemical weapons were used in Syria. Was I wrong on those subjects? Probably, though I am still not sure. But on two things, I am more convinced than ever I was right. First, the expansion of Nato into eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union was a grievous error, as was the push to privatise Russian industries and create a full-blooded market economy. Second, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 divided opinion among democratic states and forfeited such moral high ground as the US and Britain then held. It was a huge geopolitical miscalculation, leading directly to Vladimir Putin’s belief that he could invade Ukraine with impunity.

[See also: Are Britain and the West doing enough to help Ukraine?]

Home and away

Like hundreds of thousands of households across Europe, my wife and I are discussing whether we should, as the government strangely puts it, “sponsor” refugees from Ukraine. We have spare bedrooms though not much in the way of spare kitchens or bathrooms. Crucially, we have no second home on the coast, in France or in the Cotswolds. If the three-quarters of a million Britons who have second homes were temporarily to relinquish one, there would be ample housing for Ukrainian families. Besides, we have a son who works in Moscow and we may need to provide him with a bed before long. For now, we shall confine ourselves to donations to refugee charities.

Is that a cop-out? Perhaps. But I reject the argument that because I don’t, in my late seventies, feel able to welcome strangers into my home, I am disqualified from arguing that ministers should be far more hospitable to refugees and asylum-seekers – from Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan and so on, as well as from Ukraine. Are those who noisily demand that Britain and its Nato allies enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine willing to enlist in the RAF?

[See also: The war in Ukraine could unleash a catastrophe on the Middle East]

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This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global