Tina Brown recoils — shocked, but laughing — at the thought of how Harvey Weinstein might have taken to using, or misusing, Zoom calls. Now he is a convicted sex offender and in jail — but he owned the shortlived Talk magazine that Brown helped launch and edit in 1999.

The nightmare conference calls with him rank among her worst career moments, she says.

“He would make you get on the call and then wait for 25 minutes, just as a kind of power trip,” she recalls, speaking on a video call from New York. “He would suddenly come on and start with his unbelievable yelling and wild accusations.”

Brown says she knew nothing of his abusive activities: “I wasn’t in the same building. But the whole atmosphere was so difficult — it messes with your head when you work with someone like that.”

Sexual harassment was “rampant” in the media industry, she says. “I still think a lot of terrible stuff goes on. But there’s a lot more watchfulness on it.”

In her own career, Brown experienced subtle use of “belittling adjectives”, such as “sparky” or “feisty”, she notes. “It kind of grinds you down.”

There was also more outright sexism. As editor of Vanity Fair (1984-1992), published by Condé Nast, she dis­covered that the male editor of the publisher’s GQ magazine was paid more than her. Rather than force a con­frontation, Brown asked the fiercest literary agent she knew in New York to argue her case. “He walked out of the room with double my salary . . . so that was a lesson.”

Now, she says, she is given hope by the emergence of more women in positions of power compared with when she was an editor in the 1980s and 1990s. She cites The Guardian editor Katharine Viner, BBC news chief Deborah Turness, and Alessandra Galloni, editor-in-chief at Reuters.

“It’s completely changed,” she says, but women still face “microaggressions” in the workplace, and bias — either conscious or unconscious.

Brown, “a proud resident of ‘Transatlantica’”, visited the UK from her US base in May this year to co-host Truth Tellers, an inaugural summit to celebrate investigative journalism. The event also was named in memory of her husband, newspaper editor Sir Harold Evans, who died in 2020 at the age of 92.

But her home remains New York, where she made her mark as one of the most famous, and most feared, editors of the 1980s and 1990s.

Brown arrived as a 29-year-old to edit Vanity Fair magazine in 1983, fresh from turning round Condé Nast’s Tatler magazine. She set out to win over the city with the “boldness of ignorance when you’re very young”.

She became famous both for driving her teams hard and for some of the most memorable front covers of a golden generation of magazine publishing. Inside was muscular, intellectual reporting.

Brown was even called “Stalin in high heels” — a moniker she seems still to enjoy: “It’s probably true, stomping around in my Manolo Blahniks.”

And she has few regrets over her style of management: “The editor has to be the one in charge. For a woman, that’s always more difficult.”

Even so, Brown often left the office at about 5pm to head home. Family life was important, although she might be back at work again by 9pm in order to continue the day — alongside other female staff who were juggling families with work.

Such an arrangement will be familiar to many now, but less so then. “It was a rather wonderful kind of sisterhood between us: we all knew there were hours when we didn’t want to be bothered,” she recalls. “But we always knew we’d still do our work. And we would do it in our own way.”

It is with a similar sense of sisterhood that Brown spent the past decade creating live events called Women in the World. A frequent attendee was Hillary Clinton, whom Brown talks about admiringly. She also knew Donald Trump, Clinton’s triumphant Republican opponent in the 2016 presidential elections, from her Vanity Fair years.

“It was a brutal time in politics when she was beaten by Trump. I’m not alone in having felt that terrible pit in the stomach when the vote was announced — and we may be about to go through it again.”

‘I must have had a bloody nerve’

Brown’s first break came when, as a young journalist at The Sunday Times, she was asked to edit Tatler in the UK. Everyone else had said no, she claims, to what was seen as an “absurd, crepuscular debutante magazine”.

She was confident about what to change, however, and a similar confidence also powered the move to New York. “When I look back, I must have had a bloody nerve, just sort of leaping across the pond and not really having any connections in the American magazine scene. But . . . I did feel that I knew exactly what Vanity Fair should be.”

Style with substance became her touchstones for Vanity Fair. She boosted the magazine’s foreign coverage and worked with photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, who took the portrait of a naked and pregnant Demi Moore that ran on the front cover in 1991.

A piece on depression by William Styron was secured by her at a charity dinner in a move typical of her direct approach to commissioning: “I’ve always felt good editing was about getting people to say yes.”

The industry where she made her name is no longer the force it was, she acknowledges. “Magazines are, frankly, a dying art form. It’s not where the zeitgeist is.”

Yet there has never been more need for well-supported investigative journalism, she points out.

Having led one of the first mainstream digital news brands, The Daily Beast — backed by billionaire Barry Diller, who spoke at the investigative journalism summit — Brown argues that the methods and means of digital journalism are opening up new opportunities.

“There’s never been a more chal­lenging time for journalists. [Journalism is] under threat in so many, multiple dir­ections,” she says.

“But there is a mounting awareness of this as a crisis for freedom, [and] democracy, [and that] investigative journalism is indispensable.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article