LONDON — When Boris Johnson became the editor of The Spectator in 1999, he declared that he planned to make the weekly magazine, Britain’s oldest, a “refuge for logic, fun, and good writing.” It would, he promised somewhat paradoxically, “continue to set the political agenda, and to debunk it.”
Now that Mr. Johnson is the prime minister, the magazine he once ran has never been closer to fulfilling his ambition of being at once in bed with Britain’s conservative establishment and willing to yank the covers off it.
Yet in the past few weeks, The Spectator’s incestuous ties with the governing elite have thrust it into the murky heart of an uproar over a 260-mile drive that Mr. Johnson’s most influential adviser, Dominic Cummings, and his wife made to his parents’ house in northern England, violating Britain’s lockdown rules.
Mary Wakefield, one of the magazine’s senior editors, is married to Mr. Cummings and wrote a vivid account of how she and her husband both fell ill with the coronavirus. Mr. Cummings, she said, lay “doggo” in bed for 10 days before emerging into “the almost comical uncertainty of London lockdown.”
The trouble is, she did not mention that they had actually gone to Durham, a journey that brought charges of hypocrisy and calls for Mr. Johnson to dismiss Mr. Cummings, at a time when the government was already under fire for Britain’s rising death toll, ravaged nursing homes and hapless test-and-trace program.
Ms. Wakefield’s omissions have cast an unflattering light on The Spectator as well. Critics have accused it of misleading readers. Britain’s Independent Press Standards Organization, a watchdog group, has received more than 100 complaints from the public about the column, which, pending an investigation, could force the magazine to publish a correction.
“The English tradition of editing has always been more laissez faire than the American one,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a historian at Oxford University and longtime contributor to The Spectator. “But there was too much latitude in this case.”
The Spectator’s current editor, Fraser Nelson, declined to discuss the contretemps, and Ms. Wakefield, who has since assigned stories critical of her husband, did not return a request for comment. A spokesman for the magazine said, “We’re happy to let the coverage speak for itself” — a standard-issue response that in this case might accurately convey the magazine’s sentiments, given the streak of mischief in its culture.
“They’d be amused by the notoriety,” said Andrew Gimson, a former foreign editor of The Spectator who wrote a biography of Mr. Johnson. “They’ve always had a tradition of allowing people leeway and laughing at mistakes.”
At once high-minded and playful, conservative and louche, The Spectator occupies a peculiar niche in British media. It has only 83,000 print and digital subscribers, but an outsize influence because of its 192-year history, legacy of acclaimed writers (Christopher Hitchens, A.N. Wilson, Jeffrey Bernard), and reputation as an incubator for Conservative Party leaders, from Mr. Johnson to Nigel Lawson, who edited the magazine in the 1960s and went on to become chancellor of the Exchequer.
With offices in a stately Westminster townhouse, where the leather chairs and bookcases are more redolent of an Oxford college than a 21st century news organization, the magazine is famous for its summer party. No food, but the champagne flows freely and the guest list, one writer cracked, can range from cabinet ministers and famous authors to a “Catholic monsignor, aged 106.”
During Mr. Johnson’s editorship, when he also won a seat in Parliament, he and other editors carried on a tangle of extramarital affairs in the office, prompting The Spectator’s Fleet Street rivals to nickname it The Sextator.
Colleagues of Mr. Johnson say he always enjoyed a good joke, sometimes at the expense of other publications. In 2002, when The New York Times sent a photographer to shoot a portrait of Mr. Johnson, he tried to get Mr. Gimson to sit in his chair and impersonate him. The Spectator’s publisher “got wind of this childish prank, was not amused by it and put a stop to it,” Mr. Gimson recalled.
As Alexander Chancellor, one of its most storied editors, once said, “The Spectator is more of a cocktail party than a political party.”
And yet, under Mr. Nelson, its Scottish editor who went to the University of Glasgow rather than Oxford, the magazine has tried to be more sober and balanced. It has published several tough articles about Mr. Johnson and the Cummings affair, including at least one commissioned by Ms. Wakefield, according to the writer, Anthony Horowitz, who is a critic of the government. And it published a piece by its Scotland editor, Alex Massie, that declared “Boris isn’t fit to lead.”
The Spectator sponsors a parliamentarian of the year award that has become a fixture in the political calendar. Mr. Nelson and his political reporters are well connected in political circles, and often break stories about the government. Current and former staff members say they doubt Mr. Nelson knew about Ms. Wakefield’s travels before publishing her column, though they have not discussed it with him.
“It’s a very serious professional operation pretending to be a bunch of champagne dilettantes,” said James Kirkup, a writer for the magazine. “If it were just a Tory mouthpiece, it wouldn’t be very interesting or successful.”
Still, the magazine’s ties to the government are an undeniable part of its cachet, and Mr. Johnson’s rascally spirit animates both. The two “share a degree of stylistic and cultural affinity, through their unflappable confidence and their propensity for mischief,” said Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group and a fellow at the London School of Economics.
Not everyone is beguiled.
Simon Jenkins, a former editor of The Times of London, said the influence of weekly magazines was waning in general, with the emergence of digital rivals like UnHerd, a website that has published provocative pieces about the pandemic. “The peculiarity of The Spectator is, quite simply, Boris Johnson,” he said.
Professor Garton Ash said the magazine had become more of a “house journal for Brexiteers” since the 2016 referendum on European Union membership, even if it has held on to its irreverent tone and good writing.
Since 2004, The Spectator has been owned by the Barclay brothers, David and Frederick. Reclusive billionaires who are best known these days for feuding with each other, the Barclays hold staunch pro-Brexit views. But staff members say they are less involved in the magazine than in their other media property, the Daily Telegraph.
It’s not clear if the magazine’s bosses were amused by its cameo role in the Cummings affair. Andrew Neil, whom the Barclays installed as chairman of its parent company, retweeted a post in which a Times of London columnist labeled Ms. Wakefield’s column “a piece of noble deception.” Mr. Neil referred questions to Mr. Nelson, saying, “He’s responsible for the content of the magazine.”
So far, the only person who has stepped forward with an explanation is Mr. Cummings, who contributed a short piece of his own to The Spectator, which also skipped over the Durham trip. He defended the omission because, he said, his family had received threats in their London home.
“Why on earth would I mention another house I was in, where I’ve got two elderly parents and other relatives living there?” he said during a session with reporters in the garden at 10 Downing Street.
Then why, a reporter pressed Mr. Cummings, write an article at all?
“My wife’s a writer,” he replied. “I don’t tell her what to do.”