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Status anxiety

Memo for Prince Alwaweed bin Talal – here’s how you handle Forbes

9 March 2013

9:00 AM

9 March 2013

9:00 AM

I feel a twinge of pity for Prince Alwaleed bin Talal — and it’s not often you can say that about a billionaire Saudi businessman. According to Forbes, he’s worth $20 billion, making him the 26th richest man in the world. But is he? The prince has disputed this estimate of his net worth, claiming the true figure is $29.6 billion. That would place him in the world’s top ten.

The reason I feel sorry for him is not because his wealth may have been underestimated, obviously. Rather, it’s because Forbes has made him the subject of a pitiless hatchet job in the current issue, ridiculing him for trying to persuade the magazine to rank him higher in its annual list of the world’s richest people. His sin, apparently, is to take the Forbes rich list too seriously. The magazine’s editorial staff are in the odd position of having lost respect for the prince because he pays attention to what they write about him. The subtext of the 3,000-word exposé is: ‘You actually care about where we rank you in our annual list of the world’s richest people, a list we’ve been making a huge song and dance about for the past 13 years and which is virtually our magazine’s sole raison d’etre? Loser.’

That may sound paradoxical, but having worked for a glossy American magazine for the best part of five years I can assure you that this attitude is far from unusual. At Vanity Fair, the seventh circle of hell was reserved for those pathetic creatures — movie stars, Hollywood moguls and, yes, Saudi billionaires — who called up the magazine asking to be invited to its annual Oscars party. Graydon Carter, the editor-in-chief, would reel off their names with disgust, shaking his head in disbelief. Were these idiots really so clueless that they actually thought an invitation to the Vanity Fair Oscars party was worth coveting?

Now, of course, there’s a large dose of self-aggrandisement in all this. Part of the rationale for Forbes’s muckraking article about Prince Alwaleed is to advertise to the world just how important its annual list of billionaires is. After all, if this man, who’s worth $20 billion, goes to these lengths to persuade Forbes how rich he is, then the list must be a pretty big deal. Similarly, Graydon Carter was effectively saying, ‘Look at all these VIPs who are desperate to come to my party! I’m one mega-cool dude!’

But, at the same time, there’s also a good deal of self-loathing. The reason the staff of Forbes are so contemptuous of Prince Alwaleed is because he takes their work seriously. The article about him describes in some detail the lengths he’s gone to in the past to convince the magazine’s bean counters that he’s worth billions of dollars. The implication is that a successful businessman like him really ought to have something better to do with his time. The reason he’s being castigated for caring what the editorial staff think about him is because, deep down, they think their opinions are worthless — or, at any rate, not nearly as valuable as those of a bona fide billionaire.

By the same token, the staff of Vanity Fair had very little time for anyone who actually wanted to appear in its pages. Movie stars would be ranked according to how reluctant they were to be interviewed or photographed. Any celebrity who was crass enough to co-operate with the magazine — turn up to a photo shoot on time, for instance — was immediately dismissed as ‘D list’. The only way to earn the respect of the editorial staff was to treat them like domestic servants.

This goes to the heart of why Forbes has decided to pillory Prince Alwaleed in the current issue. He’s made the mistake of ignoring the proper, hierarchical relationship between glossy magazine journalists and those they spend their lives salivating over. Instead of acting like their superior — which, until now, they’ve thought of him as — he has behaved more like an equal. He’s interested in what they’re saying about him, just as they’re obsessively interested in him. It’s as if a guest at Downton Abbey had ignored the relationship between master and servant and invited Mr Carson to go shooting on his estate. Far from thanking him, Mr Carson would soon be reporting to the people below stairs that the man in question was not a real gentleman.

Take it from me, Prince Alwaleed. If you want to win back the approval of the Forbes staff, you’ve got to treat them like dogs.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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