Betrayed by its own guardian: What next for ‘The Observer’?

The last-minute intervention by the beacon of daily liberalism had saved it
from a takeover by The Independent, which would have folded The Observer
into its own Sunday. The marriage of two like-minded papers seemed to be a
union made in heaven, assuring a continued existence of the title.

The mood soon soured as Peter Preston, editor of The Guardian and chairman of
Guardian Newspapers, drove to Battersea to read editorial staff a lecture
about how everybody would have to tighten their belts if they wanted to keep
their jobs. He sought to underline his point by insisting that senior
figures from The Guardian who accompanied him on the drive to Battersea pile
into his wife’s Renault 5, including myself ? I had been his deputy for five
years and had just been named as next editor of The Observer.

None of us was exactly small, and the journey from the Guardian building in
Farringdon Road was a cramped one on a hot day, but, given the message
Preston bore with him, it would not have done for us to sweep up in our
company BMWs and Saabs. The only trouble was that nobody seemed to have
noticed our arrival. Still, the jeremiads went down badly. It was, said one
senior Observer editorial executive, like Fortnum & Mason being taken
over by Tesco.

The imminent demise of the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper had been foretold
several times but there had always been a saviour ready to bankroll the
stand-alone publication which had lectured governments during the early
20th-century editorship of J L Garvin, and acted as a liberal senior common
room guided by its post-war mentor, David Astor. Under my predecessor,
Donald Trelford, it was home to fine writers and to brave original reporting
(particularly from Africa, Ireland and, during the Beijing Spring of 1989,
from China).

But the influence of its owner Tiny Rowland’s multi-tentacled Lonrho business
group cast a pall, while the paper was unable to match the firepower and
innovation of Andrew Neil’s Sunday Times or to hold sales and attract
sufficient advertising in an increasingly crowded Sunday market. From the
late 1980s, there was a further difficulty as daily papers, starting with
The Independent, launched big Saturday editions that lured readers and
advertisers. Having coined the slogan “The weekend starts on Saturday
so why wait till Sunday for your weekend paper?” while I was at The
Independent, and having overseen the launch of the expanded Saturday
Guardian, I found myself hoist with my own petard when I moved to The
Observer.

Editorial was the only department of the paper which was not folded in to The
Guardian, and I insisted to Hugo Young, the chairman of the Scott Trust, the
group’s ultimate owner, that I would only edit the Sunday if I could do so
independently of Peter Preston and his executives. But causes for ill
feeling between the daily and Sunday multiplied as the weeks and months went
by. To meet the targets which the management of Guardian Group had presented
to the trust, to justify the purchase, there were sharp editorial cuts,
cushioned by Lonrho’s generous redundancy terms.

I hacked away at perks and privileges, leading to a meeting at the
conciliation service, Acas, after the journalists’ union branch threatened
to strike against a new contract which, among other things, removed the
automatic right of their members to travel first class on the railways,
however short the journey. My hiring of staff to give a sharper news edge,
notably with deputy editor John Price and political editor Tony Bevins, both
from The Independent, and my attempt to provide new voices in the commentary
section with Andrew Rawnsley and Melanie Phillips, both from The Guardian,
seemed to be accepted as part of the inevitable change, but of course some
noses were put out of joint.

When they were moved to the Farringdon Road building of the paper’s new
sibling to save money, Observer journalists found themselves shoe-horned
into half the promised space, with some departments put into separate rooms
down the street. As for the editor, goodbye to my predecessor’s private
shower room at the Battersea palace. The Guardian foreign desk told joint
stringers that their first loyalty was to the daily. Despite the impact made
by Bevins and company for award-winning scoops such as the Irish peace
talks, and despite the fresh impact of new writers, Hugo Young criticised
our political coverage and commentary at our very occasional and invariably
uncomfortable lunches, with Peter Preston taking the third chair.

The keeper of The Observer flame on the Trust, Anthony Sampson, yearned for “the
Astor days”. Senior Guardian executives dismissed The Observer’s arts
critics as has-beens who should be replaced by thrusting young graduates of
the Modern Review. Among Guardian journalists, there was a widespread belief
that the purchase of the Sunday paper was the reason for their meagre wage
settlement (not the case, given the way the accounts were done), and that
the Sunday staff were a bunch of dilettantes who worked a half-week ? I
recall getting into the Farringdon Road lift after coming back with Bevins
from a Westminster meeting one Wednesday afternoon, and being greeted by a
Guardian former colleague with the words: “Ah, clocking in for the week!”

It was no surprise, and a considerable personal relief, when I was sacked as
editor in January 1995. The occasion had its comic sides. Delivering the
verdict, Young told me the trust had appointed Preston as editor-in-chief of
both titles, which, he added, would mean I would wish to leave. Since I had
insisted that my appointment letter included a guarantee that The Observer
would be edited independently, and since I had not been consulted about the
trust decision, I said this looked like constructive dismissal. No, Young
replied, the trust cannot be seen to sack an editor, you will resign.

When I asked him the reasons, he mentioned circulation, but this was clearly
rubbish since we had got sales back above half-a-million in
October-November, above the forecast at the time of the acquisition. He then
said that I had not taken his lunchtime staffing advice. After which he told
me to leave the building immediately without returning to my office. Since
it was a Thursday afternoon and an editorial planning conference was about
to take place, this was a bit difficult. So he allowed me to go to get my
deputy, take him outside, tell him what had happened and quit the scene.

That was all well over a decade ago, but first impressions stay and I do not
believe that the fundamental tensions between the two papers diminished
under my four successors as circulation fell and finances became more
strained for both papers. There were striking efforts to rejuvenate the
Sunday, notably under the third of the successors, Roger Alton, before he
decided that he would not accept the shape of things to come planned by Alan
Rusbridger, who has inherited Preston’s ultimate responsibility for both
newspapers as well as editing The Guardian.

But the “neutral platform” editorial system instituted recently by
Rusbridger at the new headquarters of the two papers, behind King’s Cross,
has, from what I hear, further diminished The Observer’s status. Decisions
are made by the “platform controllers”, who are largely from The
Guardian or outside hires. This summer, The Observer’s highly regarded
management columnist Simon Caulkin (whom it took on in 1993) was dropped on
a decision by the executive responsible for the provision of business
coverage for both papers. There were 400 emails and 100 letters of protest
but all the editor, John Mulholland, could say in response was: “I hope
Simon can continue his relationship with the paper and that we can publish
his writings from time to time.”

Of course, as The Observer wrote in explaining its recent decision to stop its
television guide and drop Caulkin, economic times are very tough for
newspapers. On top of the competitive factors that date back to the 1990s,
the internet has become a formidable rival for attention and advertising,
and The Observer’s presence on the net is very much subsumed into the mighty
Guardian online machine.

Losses have mounted, accentuating the problems arising from the
over-population of the weekend market. The growing problems of The Guardian
with sales and advertising and its expensive online commitment have been
apparent for some time, even if the daily’s position in the media village
means that they have remained somewhat concealed from general view.

But they are now out in the open with the announcement of a loss for Guardian
Media Group of £90m in the past year. This can only concentrate the minds of
management and the trust ? its mission is to preserve The Guardian, not The
Observer, whose editor is not among its members. Understandably in the
current climate, neither body will give any commitment to the future of the
Sunday.

What lies ahead? Conversion into a Thursday magazine? Sale to a rich man ? are
there still Russian billionaires around with money to spend? Or closure?

All are possible. An Observer that followed its own star and broke away from
the froth and duplication of the mainstream might have a chance of carving
out a place for itself. But that would take cash and a sustained readiness
to be different, both of which are in extremely short supply these days.

Jonathan Fenby edited ‘The Observer’ from 1993 to 1995 before editing the
‘South China Morning Post’ (1995-1999). He now writes books about China and
France

Rise and fall of the nation’s first Sunday

1791 The Observer is launched by W S Bourne ? the nation’s first and
now the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper. Soon after Bourne faced debts of
£1,600 and sold it.

Later proprietors Newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe in 1908 and, from
1911-77, the Astor family.

Past editors include Conor Cruise O’Brien, David Astor, Donald
Trelford, Will Hutton and The Independent’s editor Roger Alton.

Current problems The Sunday Times revealed last week that Guardian
Media Group (GMG) is considering closing The Observer, after the parent
company recorded pre-tax losses of £90m for 2008-9.

Future options The Observer could be replaced by a magazine of the same
name, to be published on Thursdays. A draft has already been shown to
members of the Scott Trust, the charitable foundation that owns GMG.

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