A journal must have a USP – if it is to cut through, at any rate. ConservativeHome’s is in its name. The Spectator markets itself as a right-of-centre party, where you can clink champagne flutes with Rod Liddle and Mary Wakefield and Charles Moore. Guido Fawkes bosses the online tabloids. The New Statesman has some first-rate rate writers: Stephen Bush, George Eaton. There are newer kids on the block: Buzzfeed, Total Politics. In this frenetic environment, it is hard to push one’s way, if only for a moment, to the front of the queue. There is so much to read. Prospect had some marvellous writing during the general election. It was easy to miss it.
Where does UnHerd, Tim Montgomerie’s new current affairs venture, fit in? The success rate of our former editor is formidable. Nearly everything he has set up has worked. The Conservative Christian Fellowship, Renewing One Nation, ConservativeHome – all made an impact and two are still going. There are twin main points to UnHerd, which launched last week. As Tim puts it: “We aim to appeal to people who instinctively refuse to follow the herd and also want to investigate ‘unheard’ ideas, individuals and communities”.
The online magazine has five themes: “flyover country deserves a new deal”; “religion is relevant (even if you don’t believe)”; “the end is not nigh”; “the tech industry musn’t own our futures”; “western capitalism must work for the many”. A footnote from Tim: “we don’t do news. Not most news, anyway. When there’s big news about the five topics that we are focused upon, we’ll cover that but, unlike nearly every media organisation, we don’t even have a television in our office”.
The site is laid out in those shock-and-awe, screen-filling blocks of copy that Tim used for his Good Right project. It is better organised and thought through: main features at the top, audio and video below, then a “deep dive” into a special subject, then some smaller articles and columns. This order will probably chop and change, but the thinking behind it is clearly to alternate longer items with shorter ones, and showcase the editor’s intention of projecting video and audio. Both require time and money to look and sound professional, which they do, which makes this a nice moment to mention UnHerd‘s financing. There is no paywall. Its costs are apparently being covered by Paul Marshall, once a Liberal Democrat donor, more recently a Brexit backer.
A button at the top leads one to those “deep dives”, the five themes, and “quick links” – principally, “The Feed”, which is recent articles; Columnists and Guests; a Deep End-type column from Peter Franklin, whose presence alone would make it worth clicking on the site, and Briefings, which give the reader a quick guide to a subject. The whole enterprise is held together by the visual gag of a cow that is not part of a herd, which comes on top of the punning of herd and unheard. Literalists who claim that cows are found in herds, or who find the whole idea, well, a bit cheesy, are probably missing the point – which is that the device is non-abstract, attention-grabbing…and no more grating than the headline on this article.
There is a provisional feel to much of the site, which the Editor freely concedes in something called Beta. The cow has not exactly gone off at half-cock, ho ho, but bits of the site aren’t yet complete: the media library has a provisional feel. It is limbering up. More writers will come. If the reader feels that it is difficult to negotiate his way through the different sections, and is unclear which parts are core to UnHerd’s mission, that may be no more than the usual unfamiliarity with the new. What undoubtedly does punch its way through, and should especially interest conservatives with a big and small c, is Tim’s preoccupation that capitalism in the west isn’t working, is prone to capture by cronyism, special interests and lobbyists, and urgently needs Christian Democrat-flavoured reform.
This is captured in a vividly-crafted article by Ruth Davidson. The whole enterprise is bold and big-hearted and very Tim-ish, and has apparently left party politics behind, like a rocket jettisoning its hardware as it blasts further into space. There are writers from both Left and Right aboard UnHerd‘s very modern middle way. ConservativeHome wishes the project well and is on much the same page, ideas-wise if not literally. We have two reservations.
The first is whether those five themes really are unheard, or held by those who don’t follow a herd. After all, very few people argue the tech industry must own our futures, say, or that western capitalism mustn’t work for the many. They have more of the feel not of ideas that necessarily belong together but which, rather, have been corralled, are held in place and will be driven forward by Tim’s particular vision and imagination.
The second takes us back to where we started. If a journal must get to the front of the queue to be seen, how will UnHerd do this if it doesn’t do news? Furthermore, how does not doing news fit, in this case, with part-launching on the Today programme? Maybe the answer lies in the point of Tim’s appearance – which was that Today should have less of today in its mix and more of tomorrow and yesterday.
But there must be an inherent tension between the medium-term business of replenishing western capitalism, say, and the short-term one of making one’s name, and getting noticed. That Davidson is now a top-level Tory player, and that her piece must partly be read as a message to Theresa May, got picked up by the Sunday papers. Tim is a tireless performer in the studios and on the airwaves, and these are fixated by the immediate and sensational. Just as diplomacy can be described as war by other means, so UnHerd looks less like what it claims to be and more like its editor’s worldview by other means – or at least new and enticing ones.