Does Mr Rusbridger lack bottom? Too early to tell


This is the week when they are biting their nails and fiddling with their calculators in national newspaper offices. On Monday, the monthly ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) figures will be published. It is not quite like waiting for A-level grades because editors already know their results and will also have a fair idea of how their competitors have done. What preoccupies them is how the circulation department can spin the figures. November may be better than October but, if not, it may be better than November 1997. Alternatively, the average figures for the past six months may show a rise on the same period last year. Failing any of that, a newspaper may dress up a circulation fall as an increase in market share, because its circulation has fallen less than its competitors'. There are all sorts of other possibilities. If a paper fails to say anything about its circulation during the next week, you may conclude it is in very bad trouble.

In our results-driven age, journalists and their managers are obsessed by circulation. Monthly ABC figures are a recent invention; a decade or so ago, they were published quarterly. Now, managers pore over them daily. When I edited the Independent on Sunday, I had to attend an hour-long meeting each morning with David Montgomery, chief executive of the Mirror Group (then part-owners), Charles Wilson, his sidekick, and the heads of marketing, printing and circulation. The circulation man would give estimates of the previous Sunday's sales. I called him Nostradamus. One day he would announce that I was 10,000 copies up on the previous week, the next that I was 10,000 down. He gave an accurate figure only on Friday.

Even then, my own contribution, as an editor, remained opaque. The truth is that circulation figures - in the short term at least - are about as good a guide to an editor's performance as the signs of the zodiac. For one thing, those usually quoted include "bulk" sales - copies given away free (or at heavily reduced cost) to airlines, hotels and so on as a form of promotion. For another, all sorts of factors beyond the editor's control - price cuts, free offers, marketing, television advertising campaigns, printing and distribution breakdowns - affect circulation far more dramatically than front-page stories or star columnists.

Activities by rival papers can sometimes have unpredictable effects. The Independent on Sunday achieved a record high circulation of more than 440,000 when it printed the Maastricht Treaty in full. (It was the week when Kenneth Clarke confessed he hadn't read it.) This looked like a triumph for public service journalism. A circulation man gently explained the truth. The same weekend, the Observer magazine - then edited by Simon Kelner, now in charge at the Independent - had printed nude pictures of Madonna. Alerted by heavy promotion, people who usually read the People and the News of the World hopped it down to the shops early. The Observer's usual readers, arriving later, found their favourite newspaper sold out and had to settle for the IoS and the Maastricht Treaty instead.

This is why those monthly figures, dutifully printed and analysed by the media sections each month, tell you almost nothing. When October's figures came out, Andrew Neil, in his usual forthright style, wrote an Independent column on how the Guardian's figures has slipped below 400,000. This he blamed, if I understood him correctly, on a lack of what used to be called bottom in the editor, Alan Rusbridger. But the figures simply did not bear the weight of Neil's argument. The Guardian, selling at 45p on weekdays, has suffered only a small circulation loss through more than four years of price-cutting by its rivals. The Times, now selling at 30p, has nearly doubled its sale to more than 750,000. Who has done better: Rusbridger or his rival, Peter Stothard, at the Times? Nobody can really say.

Even in the long term, I suspect, newspaper circulations are crucially influenced by events outside their editors' control. The Express, for example, has suffered long-term decline, not because it has had rotten editors (though it has had a few) but because the agenda that kept it going for half a century, the defence of the Empire, just disappeared. On the other side of the political fence, something similar happened to the Observer, which had stood for decolonisation. Once this was achieved, along with a number of domestic liberal causes such as the abolition of hanging, it struggled to find a role.

The initial success of the Independent, and then its decline, owed much, in my view, to outside events. Its first five years saw the poll tax, the fall of Thatcher, the collapse of the East European dictatorships, the Gulf war and a series of domestic disasters such as Hillsborough, the Clapham rail crash and the Channel ferry sinking. All these were natural "broadsheet" stories, ideal for an upmarket paper that promised a fresh, independent, analytical approach to the news. Since 1992, the agenda has been dominated by royalty, the sex lives of politicians and the scandalous doings of pop stars and footballers. All these are matters that a high-minded paper like the Independent is ill-equipped to handle. I am reminded of a duty editor at the paper who, pressed to splash on a Greek heatwave that had killed some hundreds of people, demurred because he couldn't see "the policy implications". Leaving aside the 1997 general election, I would reckon that, on his definition, Britain's withdrawal from the ERM was the last major policy issue to engage significant sections of the public.

None of this is to deny that some editors are fine journalists who deserve circulation success, while others deserve failure. It is just that the relationship is far more complex than circulation figures for a single month, year or even decade can show. Which is why, whenever I am asked about circulation, I reply, as Zhou Enlai did when asked about the effects of the French revolution, that it's too early to tell.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.