Does Mr Rusbridger lack bottom? Too early to tell

Media

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.