Rachel Johnson turns a new page at The Lady
PUBLISHED: 12:32 16 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:16 20 February 2013
When Suffolk's Budworth family entrusted Rachel Johnson with editorship of their revamped The Lady magazine they may not have anticipated the subsequent spats and controversy that have made headlines ever since, says Richard Bryson
When Suffolks Budworth family entrusted Rachel Johnson with editorship of their revamped The Lady magazine they may not have anticipated the subsequent spats and controversy that have made headlines ever sincem says Richard Bryson
Some 18 months ago Ben Budworth, owner and publisher of The Lady magazine, and I sat on the terrace of the familys country home in mid Suffolk and talked about the planned revival of a once great British institution. This Lady was for turning. A dramatic sales decline had to be reversed, the title was losing thousands of pounds a week, and the publishing world was leaving it behind.
Budworth talked about making radical changes and facing up to the challenges ahead...oh, and Rachel Johnson, sister of London mayor Boris, had just been appointed editor.
He might have added: Light the blue touch paper.
Now, following a mischievous, fly-on-the-wall Channel Four documentary, and the publication of Johnsons less than discreet diary of her first year as editor, The Lady has been the talk of the media world.
No wonder Budworth has ditched his PR agencies Johnson has drummed up a blitzkrieg of publicity all by herself.
On the week of our visit to the magazines Covent Garden offices, Private Eye has neatly satirised the conflict between Johnson and Julia Budworth, Bens mother and still fierce guardian of the publications heritage and values.
On the one hand you can look at that page and say they are laughing at us, but its still good publicity, says Ben with a smile.
He gives the impression of quite enjoying all the fuss, though there are some misconceptions he wants to address.
The documentary The Lady and the Revamp did not always give a true picture of life at the magazine, and certainly not his relationship with Johnson.
I think they got around 400 hours of material and inevitably they were looking perhaps hoping for that Ratner moment, when someone says something controversial. He regrets some of Johnsons asides to camera, including some disparaging remarks about the magazine and the staff.
The venom that has been unleashed has been quite something and it is a pity my mother cant always see that we have had to make some tough decisions to keep the magazine solvent and embrace the 21st century
If there are differences of opinion between a publisher and an editor they should be conducted in private. I wasnt going to air all my views in front of the cameras. I will always support Rachel. She makes hundreds of good decisions each week but once or twice I have had to over-ride her that didnt come over in the film.
Its a view supported by archive assistant Wendy Wilson, who showed us around the office cellar where thousands of back copies of the magazine are kept.
I think its a shame they didnt depict Bens great love of the magazine and his enthusiasm, she says.
But could he have gone elsewhere with the idea of the documentary? It seems Budworths business brain overcame any personal sensibilities.
It might have gone to BBC 4 but perhaps only 60,000 would have seen it. Channel Four promised a good spot in the schedules plus several repeats. And even now I hear it is showing on various airlines.
We viewed it before it was televised but the condition was we could only change factual matters, we had no say on how it was edited.
Despite the impression given on screen, no-one was sacked and the producers picked out the quotes they wanted to suit the programme.
Ben, a helicopter pilot, admits that he fell into a trap he should have seen coming. I have a model helicopter in the boardroom and one day, in an off-guarded moment, the cameraman caught me lost in thought playing with it. Not surprisingly they kept that in.
If Channel Four ruffled a few feathers, Johnsons diary, published in September, and serialised in the Daily Mail, has heightened a conflict between her and Mrs Budworth.
The venom that has been unleashed has been quite something and it is a pity my mother cant always see that we have had to make some tough decisions to keep the magazine solvent and embrace the 21st century, says Ben, who admits it is difficult to discuss the family business with his mother when she can suddenly drop into the conversation that she used to change his nappy, or spoon-feed him Weetabix.
His stance of supporting Rachel means he has not been back to the family home near Needham Market for many weeks. Last I heard, and according to the Daily Telegraph, she wanted to kill me! he grins.
Does he think Rachel could do with some of brother Boris's people skills? Well Boris gets away with a lot through his bumbling charm and Rachel is very direct, he says.
Theres no anguishing about the events of the past year either. Rachel doesnt regret the TV show or the book.
She does, however, come over all conciliatory in the postscript to her book. She writes: I have learnt that Ben, far from needing to grow a pair of balls is a dynamic, kind, nay inspirational publisher and supreme commander . . . who responds to my diva-ish strops with superhuman tolerance.
According to the mother of the publisher, theres a penis on every page but Ive yet to find one!
Back in 2009 Ben stated: We wont do sex and tittle-tattle in the magazine. But recently Julia Budworth has accused Johnson of being obsessed with sex and bringing vulgarity to The Lady.
Johnson is forthright in her response. Well, according to the mother of the publisher, theres a penis on every page but Ive yet to find one! The real point is that all the other weeklies are chasing the same readers downmarket with tales of sex, and telly, and celebrity, which leaves the higher ground free for The Lady always a bastion of English values and decency to occupy it.
I think that Mrs Budworth is actually a modern and intelligent woman and she can see that The Lady has to change or it will disappear for good. Our existing readers were dying and radical surgery was needed to bring younger ones on board. Its a balancing act.
So what did she know of The Lady before being made editor?
Id once interviewed the previous editor for the Financial Times (which she denies so it shows how memorable I am) and I think I used it a couple of times when my children were at the wet-nursing stage. Apart from that, I hadnt knowingly seen it, or heard anyone mention it for 15 years.
Having familiarised herself with the title she has wasted no time taking it off in a new direction.
Ben interjects: Despite what some say we didnt hire Rachel for her address book. What impressed us at the interview (and he reveals he took no less than 21 top candidates to lunch in his plan to find the best editor) was her boundless energy. It still impresses us there really is no stopping her, sales have increased and the average age of our readers (reported at 75 last year) is coming down.
More and more high profile writers want to contribute to the magazine, says Rachel. They are queuing all the way round the block and I also have a folder with 300 emails from aspiring writers keen to supply pieces, not to mention a pile of unsolicited submissions.
And every single day things happen here that you couldnt make up its as if the Jerry Springer show has been scripted by Lewis Carroll.
The rather splendid Julia Budworth admits that the magazine has picked up recently (and she loves Rachel writing as Coco in a pets eye view column). But she wonders what happened to the charming Rachel the family interviewed and appointed editor.
I dont know why she had to ham it up in the documentary. Did she think she was Anna Wintour? I didnt like the snide comments . . . The Lady is civilised, elegant and not nasty. She is glorying in herself at the expense of our magazine.
I think Ben should have reined her in more, she says. In fact, Julia says she is worried about her son and how the past year has changed him.
Meanwhile a cynic might say that having raised her own profile Rachel might be thinking of moving on to something new. Bah humbug! Editing The Lady is the best job in the world . . . well it is now! she replies. Ill do it until theres nothing left to achieve, the circulation is healthy and the magazine is making a fat profit again.
So, good news for Ben even if the office Christmas party may be another minefield for the owners and editor to negotiate.