The Spectator’s founding editor, the Dundonian reformer Robert Stephen Rintoul, launched the paper on 5 December 1828. Almost certainly (there is no precise evidence) he revived the title from the 1711 publication by Addison & Steele. As he had long been determined "to edit a perfect newspaper", Rintoul initially insisted on "absolute power" over content, commencing a long-lasting tradition of the paper’s editor and proprietor being one and the same person. The Spectator’s political outlook in its first thirty years reflected Rintoul’s liberal-radical agenda. Despite its political stance it was widely regarded and respected for its non-partisanship.
Under Rintoul The Spectator came out strongly for the Great Reform Act of 1832, coining the well-known phrase, "The Bill, the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill", in its support. It also objected to the appointment of the Duke of Wellington as Prime Minister, condemning him as "a Field Marshal whose political career proves him to be utterly destitute of political principle – whose military career affords ample evidence of his stern and remorseless temperament."
The magazine was vocal in its opposition to the First Opium War (1839–1842), commenting: "all the alleged aims of the expedition against China are vague, illimitable, and incapable of explanation, save only that of making the Chinese pay the opium-smugglers." and "There does not appear to be much glory gained in a contest so unequal that hundreds are killed on one side and none on the other. What honour is there in going to shoot men, certain that they cannot hurt you? The cause of the war, be it remembered, is as disreputable as the strength of the parties is unequal. The war is undertaken in support of a co-partnery of opium-smugglers, in which the Anglo-Indian Government may be considered as the principal partner."
In 1853 it published an anonymous and unfavourable review of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, later revealed to be by George Brimley, typical of the paper's enduring contempt for him as a "popular" writer "amusing the idle hours of the greatest number of readers; not, we may hope, without improvement to their hearts, but certainly without profoundly affecting their intellects or deeply stirring their emotions."
Rintoul died in April 1858 and the magazine, whose circulation was falling, was sold. Thereafter, it went into an accelerated period of decline. Records are scarce but it appears that it was briefly owned by a Mr Scott and then bought for £4200 in December 1858 by two London-based Americans, James McHenry and Benjamin Moran. McHenry was a businessman and Moran was an Assistant Secretary to the ambassador, George M. Dallas; they saw their purchase as a means to influence British opinion on American affairs. The editor was Thornton Hunt, a friend of Moran who had also worked for Rintoul. Hunt was also nominally the purchaser, having been given the necessary monies in an attempt by McHenry and Moran to disguise the American ownership. Circulation declined with this loss of independence and inspirational leadership, and the views of James Buchanan, the then president of the US, came to the fore. Within weeks, the editorial line followed Buchanan's pronouncements in being "...neither pro-slavery nor pro-abolitionist. To unsympathetic observers Buchanan's policy seemed to apportion blame for the impasse on the slavery question equally on pro-slavery and abolitionist factions - and rather than work out a solution, simply to argue that a solution would take time. The Spectator now would publicly support that 'policy.'". This set it at odds with most of the British press but gained it the sympathy of ex-patriate Americans in the country. Richard Fulton notes that from then until 1861, "... the Spectator's commentary on American affairs read like a Buchanan administration propaganda sheet." and that this represented a volte-face.
On 19 January 1861, The Spectator was bought by a journalist, Meredith Townsend, for £2000. The need to promote the Buchanan position in Britain had been reduced as British papers such as The Times and The Saturday Review turned in his favour, fearing the potential effects of a split in the Union. Abraham Lincoln had also replaced the vacillating Buchanan and Moran's position in London was in doubt now that Dallas had been removed as ambassador. In addition, the owners had been pumping money into a loss-making publication and were increasingly reluctant to continue the practice.
From the outset, Townsend took up an anti-Buchanan, anti-slavery position, arguing that his unwillingness to act decisively had been a weakness and a contributor to the problems apparent in the US. He soon went into partnership with Richard Holt Hutton, a theologian whose friend William Gladstone later called him "the first critic of the nineteenth century". Townsend’s writing in The Spectator confirmed him as one of the finest journalists of his day, and he has since been called "the greatest leader writer ever to appear in the English Press."
The two men remained co-proprietors and joint editors for 25 years, taking a strong stand on some of the most controversial issues of their day. They supported the Federalists against the South in the American Civil War, an unpopular position which, at the time, did some damage to the paper’s circulation, though gained readers in the long run when the North won. They also launched an all-out assault on Benjamin Disraeli, accusing him in a series of leaders of jettisoning ethics for politics by ignoring the atrocities committed against Bulgarian civilians by Turkey in the 1870s.
In 1887 Townsend was succeeded by John St Loe Strachey, a young aristocrat who had replaced H.H. Asquith (the future Prime Minister) as a leader-writer during the previous year. As well as being The Spectator’s sole proprietor and editor, he also became its chief leader-writer, general manager and literature critic. The paper’s circulation doubled under Strachey’s leadership, becoming "the most influential of all the London weeklies" before 1914. After falling ill in 1925, Strachey finally sold his controlling interest in the paper to his business manager, Sir Evelyn Wrench, and retired, dying two years later in 1928.
Perhaps Wrench’s most remembered achievement as editor of The Spectator was his campaign to ease unemployment in the mining town of Aberdare, one of the worst hit by the crisis of 1928, when joblessness reached 40% in South Wales. Within three months, the paper’s appeal for the town’s relief raised over £12,000 (the equivalent of about £500,000 today). A statuette presented in gratitude to The Spectator, of an Aberdare miner, still sits in the editor’s office, bearing the inscription: "From the Townsfolk of Aberdare in Grateful Recognition: 'The Greatest of These is Love'".
Wrench retired as editor in 1932 (though he remained the magazine's proprietor), appointing Wilson Harris his successor. Under Harris The Spectator became increasingly outspoken on developing international politics in the 1930s, in particular on the rise of fascism. Beneath a reader’s letter referring to the Nazi Party as "peaceful, orderly and kindly", Harris printed the following reply:
No facts in recent history are established more incontestably? ... than the numerous cases of murder, assault, and various forms of intimidation for which the National Socialist Party in Germany has been responsible ... The organized economic boycott of the Jews is the climax. The Spectator has consistently shown itself a friend of Germany, but it is a friend of freedom first. Resort to violence is not condoned by styling it revolution.
In general however, Harris supported Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, praising the Munich agreement, explaining later that he believed "even the most desperate attempt to save the peace was worthwhile".
Wrench sold The Spectator in 1954 to barrister Ian Gilmour. Assuming the editorship himself from 1954 to 1959, Gilmour adopted a libertarian and pro-European outlook, and "enlivened the paper and injected a new element of irreverence, fun and controversy". He was critical of Harold Macmillan's government, and while supporting the Conservatives was also friendly to the Hugh Gaitskell wing of the Labour Party.
Gilmour famously lent The Spectator’s voice to the campaign to end capital punishment in Britain, writing an incensed leader attacking the hanging of Ruth Ellis in 1955, in which he claimed "Hanging has become the national sport", and that the home secretary Gwilym Lloyd George, for not reprieving the sentence, "has now been responsible for the hanging of two women over the past eight months".
The Spectator opposed Britain’s involvement in the Suez crisis in 1956, strongly criticizing the government’s handling of the debacle. The paper went on to oppose Macmillan’s government’s re-election in 1959, complaining: "The continued Conservative pretence that Suez was a good, a noble, a wise venture has been too much to stomach ... the Government is taking its stand on a solid principle: 'Never admit a mistake.'"
The paper also gave its support to the proposals of the Wolfenden Committee in 1957, condemning the "utterly irrational and illogical" old laws on homosexuality: "Not only is the law unjust in conception, it is almost inevitably unjust in practice".
In March the same year, Jenny Nicholson, a frequent contributor, wrote a piece on the Italian Socialist Party congress in Venice, which mentioned three Labour Party politicians (Aneurin Bevan, Richard Crossman and Morgan Phillips) "who puzzled the Italians by filling themselves like tanks with whisky and coffee " All three sued for libel, the case went to trial and The Spectator was forced to make a large payment in damages and costs, a sum well over the equivalent of £150,000 today. It has since emerged that "all three plaintiffs, to a greater or lesser degree, perjured themselves in court".
In 1963, Gilmour offered the editorship to Iain Macleod, the politician who had recently resigned his cabinet seat in objection to the controversial appointment of Sir Alec Douglas-Home as Prime Minister. The decision caused enormous controversy, especially after Macleod chose to use the paper to explain his recent resignation. In an article entitled "The Tory Leadership", ostensibly a review of a new book by Randolph Churchill, Macleod lay out in great detail Harold Macmillan’s version of events after his replacement by Douglas-Home the previous October.
In disclosing, from the horse’s mouth, the mysterious circumstances of Douglas-Home’s appointment, the article caused an immediate sensation. Churchill’s book was all but obliterated by the review, "four fifths" of which, it said, "could have been compiled by anyone with a pair of scissors, a pot of paste and a built-in prejudice against Mr Butler and Sir William Haley". That week’s edition, bearing the headline "Iain Macleod, What Happened", sold a record number of copies.
The "Tory Leadership" article prompted a furious response from many Spectator readers and caused Macleod, for a time, to be shunned by political colleagues. He eventually regained his party’s favour, however, and rejoined the shadow cabinet in the same year. On his appointment as Shadow Chancellor in 1965, he stepped down as editor on the last day of the year, to be replaced by Nigel Lawson.
Sometimes called "The Great Procrastinator" because of his tendency to leave writing leaders until the last minute, Lawson had been City editor for The Sunday Telegraph and Alec Douglas-Home’s personal assistant during the 1964 general election.
Largely thanks to Lawson, in 1966 The Spectator opposed America’s increasing military commitment in Vietnam. In a signed article he estimated "the risks involved in an American withdrawal from Vietnam are less than the risks in escalating a bloody and brutal war".
In 1967 Ian Gilmour, who by then had joined parliament and was already finding the proprietorship less of a help than a hindrance in political life, sold The Spectator to Harry Creighton for £75,000. In 1970, Creighton replaced Lawson as editor (there had been growing resentment between the two men) with George Gale.
Gale shared Creighton’s political outlook, in particular his strong opposition to the Common Market, and much of the next five years was spent attacking the pro-EEC prime minister Edward Heath, treating his eventual defeat by Margaret Thatcher with undisguised delight.
Gale’s almost obsessive opposition to the EEC and antagonistic attitude towards Heath began to lose the magazine readers. In 1973 Creighton took over the editorship himself, but was, if possible, even less successful in stemming the losses. Circulation fell from 36,000 in 1966 to below 17,000. As one journalist who joined The Spectator at that time said: "It gave the impression, an entirely accurate one, of a publication surviving on a shoestring". George Gale later remarked that Creighton had only wanted the job to get into Who’s Who.
In 1975 Creighton sold The Spectator to Henry Keswick, again for £75,000 (Creighton sold the 99 Gower Street premises separately, so the magazine moved to offices in Doughty Street). Keswick was chairman of the Jardine Matheson multinational corporation. He was drawn to the paper partly because he harboured political aspirations (the paper’s perk as a useful stepping stone to Westminster was, by now, well established), but also because his father had been a friend of Peter Fleming, its well-known columnist.
Keswick gave the job of editor to "the only journalist he knew", Alexander Chancellor, an old family friend and his mother’s godson, with whom he had been at Eton and Cambridge. Before then, Chancellor had worked at Reuters news agency and had been a scriptwriter and reporter for ITN. In spite of his relative inexperience, he was to become known as "one of the best editors in the history of The Spectator".
Chancellor’s editorship of the paper relied principally on a return to earlier values. He adopted a new format and a more traditional weekly style, with the front page displaying five cover lines above the leader. Most significantly, he recognised the need "to bring together a number of talented writers and, with the minimal of editorial interference, let them write". To this end he persuaded Auberon Waugh (who had been sacked by Nigel Lawson) to return from the New Statesman, and enticed Richard West and Jeffrey Bernard from the same magazine. Another columnist recruited by Chancellor was Taki Theodoracopulos whose column ‘High Life’ was then printed beside Bernard’s ‘Low Life’. Taki's column, frequently criticised for its content by the press, remains in the paper.
In September 1978, a 96-page issue was released to mark The Spectator’s 150th anniversary. William Rees-Mogg congratulated the paper in a Times's leading article, praising it in particular for its important part in "the movement away from collectivism".
Chancellor was replaced by the 28-year-old Charles Moore in February 1984 after the magazine’s then owner, Algy Cluff, had become concerned that The Spectator was "lacking in political weight" and considered Chancellor to be "commercially irresponsible".
Moore had been a leader writer at The Daily Telegraph before Chancellor recruited him to The Spectator as political commentator. The paper under Moore became more political than it had been under Chancellor. The new editor adopted an approach that was, in general, pro-Margaret Thatcher, while showing no restraint in opposing her on certain issues. The paper called the Anglo-Irish Agreement "a fraudulent prospectus" in 1985, came out against the Single European Act, and, in 1989, criticised the handover of Hong Kong to China. Moore wrote that, if Britain failed to allow the city’s UK passport holders right of abode in Britain, "we shall have to confess that, for the first time in our history, we have forced Britons to be slaves."
He also introduced several new contributors, including a restaurant column by Nigella Lawson (the former editor’s daughter), and a humorous column by Craig Brown. When Taki was briefly imprisoned for cocaine possession Moore refused to accept his resignation, explaining publicly: "We expect our High Life columnist to be high some of the time."
The Spectator changed hands again in 1985, by which time it had accumulated an overdraft of over £300,000 and it was facing financial meltdown. Cluff had reached the conclusion that the paper "would be best secured in the hands of a publishing group", and sold it to an Australian company, John Fairfax Ltd, who promptly paid off the overdraft. With the support of its new proprietor, the paper was able to widen its readership through subscription drives and advertising, reaching a circulation of 30,000 in 1986, exceeding the circulation of the New Statesman for the first time. The magazine was again sold in 1988, after an uncertain period during which several candidates, including Rupert Murdoch, attempted to buy the magazine. Moore wrote to Murdoch, saying: "Most of our contributors and many of our readers would be horrified at the idea of your buying The Spectator. They believe you are autocratic and that you have a bad effect on journalism of quality – they cite The Times as the chief example." In the end The Spectator was bought by the Telegraph Group, of which Conrad Black then had a controlling interest.
Moore gave up the editorship in 1990 to become deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, though he continues to write a column for the magazine. He was replaced by his own deputy editor, Dominic Lawson—the former editor’s son.
Shortly after becoming editor, Lawson became responsible for the resignation of a cabinet minister when he interviewed the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Nicholas Ridley. During the interview Ridley described the proposed Economic and Monetary Union as "a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe", and seemed to draw comparisons between the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl and Adolf Hitler. The interview appeared in the issue of 14 July 1990, whose cover showed a cartoon by Nicholas Garland, of Ridley painting onto a poster of Kohl a crude comb-over and a Hitler moustache. Ridley resigned from Thatcher’s government immediately.
The Spectator caused controversy in 1994 when it printed an article entitled "Kings of the Deal" on a claimed Jewish influence in Hollywood, written by William Cash, who at the time was based in Los Angeles and working mainly for The Daily Telegraph. The Telegraph had considered the article too risky to publish, but Lawson thought Cash's idea was as old as Hollywood itself and that his (Lawson's) being Jewish would mitigate adverse reactions to publication. There was, however, considerable controversy. Although owner Conrad Black did not personally rebuke Lawson, Max Hastings, then editor of The Daily Telegraph, wrote with regard to Black, who also owned The Jerusalem Post at the time, "It was one of the few moments in my time with Conrad when I saw him look seriously rattled: 'You don't understand, Max. My entire interests in the United States and internationally could be seriously damaged by this'."
The article was defended by some conservatives. John Derbyshire, who says he has "complicated and sometimes self-contradictory feelings about Jews", wrote on National Review Online regarding what he saw as the Jewish overreaction to the article that "It was a display of arrogance, cruelty, ignorance, stupidity, and sheer bad manners by rich and powerful people towards a harmless, helpless young writer, and the Jews who whipped up this preposterous storm should all be thoroughly ashamed of themselves".
Lawson left in 1995 to become editor of The Sunday Telegraph, and was replaced by a deputy editor of the same newspaper, Frank Johnson. After the 1997 election, Johnson averted a decline in The Spectator’s sales by recruiting "New Labour contributors", and shifting the magazine’s direction slightly away from politics. In 1996 the paper featured an interview with The Spice Girls, in which the band members gave their "Euro-sceptic and generally anti-labour" views on politics. Shortly before her death Diana, Princess of Wales was depicted on the magazine’s cover as the figurehead of Mohamed Al-Fayed’s boat, the Jonikal.
Before joining The Spectator as editor, Johnson had worked for The Times, the Wolverhampton Express & Star, and The Daily Telegraph. He had also briefly been political commentator for The Spectator under Dominic Lawson, but Frank Johnson replaced him with Bruce Anderson in 1995. Succeeding Frank Johnson in 1999, Johnson soon established himself as a competent and "colourful" editor.
In the 2001 general election he was elected MP for Henley, and by 2004 had been made vice-chairman of the Conservative party, with a place in Michael Howard’s shadow cabinet. In 2003 he explained his editorial policy for The Spectator would "always be roughly speaking in favour of getting rid of Saddam, sticking up for Israel, free-market economics, expanding choice" and that the magazine was "not necessarily a Thatcherite Conservative or a neo-conservative magazine, even though in our editorial coverage we tend to follow roughly the conclusions of those lines of arguments".
In October 2004, a Spectator editorial suggested that the death of the hostage Kenneth Bigley was being over-sentimentalized by the people of Liverpool, accusing them of indulging in a "vicarious victimhood" and of possessing a "deeply unattractive psyche".’ Johnson had not written the leader but, as editor, took full responsibility for it. Michael Howard subsequently ordered him to visit Liverpool on a "penitential pilgrimage". Recent articles have resumed the theme in commenting on public declarations of grief following the murder of Rhys Jones.
At this time the paper began jokingly to be referred to as the ‘Sextator’ – a nickname for which Johnson himself was more than a little responsible – owing to the number of sex scandals connected with the magazine during his editorship. These included an affair between columnist Rod Liddle and the magazine’s receptionist, and Johnson’s own affair with another columnist, Petronella Wyatt. Johnson at first denied the relationship, dismissing the allegations as "an inverted pyramid of piffle", but was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet in November 2004 when they turned out to be perfectly true. In the same year David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, resigned from the government after it emerged he had been having an affair with the publisher of The Spectator, Kimberly Quinn, and had fast-tracked her nanny’s visa application.
Circulation under Johnson reached record levels – as high as 70,000 by the time he left the magazine in 2005 to join David Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Minister for Higher Education. On the announcement of his departure, Andrew Neil, The Spectator CEO paid tribute to his editorship.
D’Ancona had been Deputy Editor at The Sunday Telegraph, and before that an assistant editor at The Times. During his four years as editor of The Spectator, he made several editorial and structural changes to the magazine, "not all of which were universally popular with readers".
He ended the traditional summary of the week’s events, "Portrait of the Week", and, in 2006, launched a new lifestyle section entitled "You Earned It". He removed Peter Oborne as political editor, and appointed Fraser Nelson in his place. He decided not to appoint a new media columnist to succeed Stephen Glover, explaining, "I do not think The Spectator needs a media columnist. Our pages are precious and I do not think the internal wranglings of our trade are high on the list of Spectator readers’ priorities."
Perhaps the magazine's most important innovation under d’Ancona was the Coffee House blog, led by Peter Hoskin and James Forsyth, launched in May 2007.
In 2007 The Spectator moved its offices from Doughty Street, which had been its home for 31 years, to 22 Old Queen Street in Westminster, leaving Bloomsbury for the first time since the paper’s founding in 1828.
The Spectator’s current editor is Fraser Nelson, who replaced d’Ancona in August 2009.
In 2010 he unveiled a slight redesign of the paper, shrinking the cover illustration slightly, shifting the cover lines, in general, to the bottom, and spreading the contents section over a double-page. Playing down the changes, Nelson described the new look as "a tidy-up ... rather like restoring an old painting."
An article in November 2011 by Rod Liddle on the trial of two men eventually convicted for the murder of Stephen Lawrence led to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) deciding to prosecute the magazine for breaching reporting restrictions. The magazine chose not to contest the case, and the publisher Spectator 1828 Ltd pleaded guilty at the court hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court on 7 June 2012. The magazine was fined £3,000, with £2,000 compensation awarded to Stephen Lawrence's parents and £625 costs. According to Nelson, readers' most common reaction to the columnist was "don't tone down Rod", but "our non-readers don't like" him.
In June 2013, The Spectator Archive was launched, containing 1.5 million pages from 180 years of published articles.
In August 2015, The Spectator received media attention and criticism after publishing an article by Charles Moore regarding the 2015 Labour Party leadership election titled "Have Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall got the looks for a leadership contest?", in which he wrote "there is an understanding that no leader - especially, despite the age of equality, a woman - can look grotesque on television and win a general election" and discussed the looks of the two female candidates in detail. The article was condemned by Liz Kendall; First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon; Candidate for Labour nomination for Mayor of London and former Minister and MP Tessa Jowell; along with several journalist and MP's from various parties
Like its sister publication The Daily Telegraph, The Spectator is generally Atlanticist and Eurosceptic in outlook, favouring close ties with the United States rather than with the European Union, and supportive of Israel. It also strongly opposes Scottish independence. However, it has expressed strong doubts about the Iraq War, and some of its contributors, such as Matthew Parris and Stuart Reid, express a more old-school conservative position. Some contributors, such as Irwin Stelzer, argue from an American neoconservative position. Unlike much of the British press it is approving of the unilateral extradition treaty that allowed the Natwest three to be extradited, and in July 2006 the magazine devoted a leading article to praising the US Senate.
The Spectator is one of the few British publications that tends to be cautious of idolising examples of popular culture, in the way that (for example) The Daily Telegraph did under Bill Deedes, or The Times did under William Haley. The magazine coined the phrase "young fogey" in 1984.
The Spectator does have a popular music column, though it only appears every four weeks, while a cinema column contains a review of one film each week by Deborah Ross. By contrast, opera, fine art, books, poetry and classical music all receive extensive weekly coverage.
In addition to the permanent staff of writers, other contributors include:
The editors of The Spectator have been:Robert Stephen Rintoul, 1828–58Scott, c. 1858 (first name unknown)Thornton Leigh Hunt, c. 1858–61Meredith Townsend and Richard Holt Hutton, 1861–86Meredith Townsend, 1886–87John St Loe Strachey, 1887–1925Sir Evelyn Leslie Wrench, 1925–32Henry Wilson Harris, 1932–53Walter Taplin, 1953–54Ian Gilmour, 1954–59Brian Inglis, 1959–62Iain Hamilton, 1962–63Iain Macleod, 1963–1965Nigel Lawson, 1966–1970George Gale, 1970–73Harold Creighton, 1973–75Alexander Chancellor, 1975–84Charles Moore, 1984–90Dominic Lawson, 1990–95Frank Johnson, 1995–99Boris Johnson, 1999–2005Matthew d'Ancona, 2006–09Fraser Nelson, 2009–present