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22 December 2014

The Guardian’s future, the Ukip bubble and your choice of death by snow or poisonous chicken

With Islamist terrorists, ebola and poisonous chickens threatening to overwhelm us, you would think the British have enough to worry about.

By Peter Wilby

On the subject of his successor, as on everything else, Alan Rusbridger hides his opinions behind a Buddha-like exterior. But perhaps the most important consideration in his decision to step down as the Guardian’s editor-in-chief next summer was that a successor who shares his vision is in place. Jan­ine Gibson, launch editor of Guardian US and now editor-in-chief of the company’s digital journalism, is quoted by Ladbrokes as 6-4 favourite. To many insiders, those odds look generous. Some prefer Katharine Viner (3-1 second favourite), now Guardian US editor, and she could conceivably win the staff poll. But that is not binding on the Scott Trust, which will make the appointment. And this isn’t the 1970s, even on the Guardian: the notion that a hacks’ uprising could derail a carefully planned corporate strategy is for the birds.

Rusbridger’s belief that the Guardian should be a digital company that happens incidentally and temporarily to publish a newspaper still has its internal critics. So does his view that, as the disgruntled put it, “we should give away our content free”, charging nothing for access to the website while the papers lose around £30m annually. The critics take encouragement from Rupert Murdoch’s Times and Sunday Times, protected by an online paywall, recording their first operating profit in 13 years – a measly £1.7m but one that is, as Rusbridger’s somewhat acerbic predecessor Peter Preston puts it, “here and now, not years down the line”. The Guardian, however, is not likely to change course now, particularly since most of the industry takes the same approach and regards Murdoch as an aged, print-obsessed eccentric. Rusbridger, who becomes Scott Trust chairman when he vacates the editorship, will no doubt ensure no backsliding from what, in his mind, has become almost an article of faith.


Oxbridge blues

The most remarkable thing about the race for the Guardian editorship is that both front-runners are female. The Times, Telegraph, Financial Times, Mirror, Mail and, until now, the Guardian have never had a woman editor. The Express and Independent have each had one – and that was the same person, Rosie Boycott, who in the 1990s collected editorships the way some people collect stamps. The Sun has also had one woman editor, Rebekah Brooks.

Women have been more successful in securing Sunday newspaper editorships. That is partly, I suppose, because Sunday papers are slightly more compatible with family life than dailies where, because most big decisions are taken on weekday evenings, women are more easily excluded from inner circles of power. But it is also because the Sundays don’t carry much hard news and their package of glossy magazines and lifestyle features is believed by newspaper managements to suit women more. Nowadays, straight news and big, black headlines about affairs of state aren’t thought to matter so much even on the dailies.

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Some things, though, never change. Gibson’s father is a former chairman of Trinity Mirror and present chairman of the supermarket group Morrisons; she went to a fee-charging school and, like Rusbridger and Viner, has an Oxbridge degree in English.


State of the Nation

Jason Cowley last week described the New Republic as the nearest thing the NS has to a US sister publication. That accolade used to be awarded to the more left-wing Nation, a magazine once printed on paper so cheap that, as someone said, if you photocopied it, the copy looked better. In the late 1980s, the Nation and the NS collaborated on InterNation, bringing together radical publications around the world for transnational investigations. Although it had modest successes – exposing an international cement cartel, for example – it faded largely because, before email, communication across distance was so difficult. Today, the Guardian frequently collaborates with overseas and particularly American papers. The Nation and the NS were 20 years too early.


Brand values

The BBC’s decision to invite Nigel Farage and Russell Brand on to the same Question Time panel was a good one. Brand, for all his pretensions as a philosopher and political analyst, is essentially a clown and his clashes with Farage revealed that the two belong in the same category. They created a riotously entertaining programme but showed neither is fit to join a serious legislative body. The only difference between them is that Farage wishes to do so. As stories about Ukip candidates’ deranged attitudes towards women, gays and immigrants emerge almost daily, the truth about the party is beginning to dawn on the public. It may still get enough votes to affect the election outcome in a few seats, but it will not, I predict, return more than a couple of MPs and quite likely none at all.


Ban the weather bomb

With Islamist terrorists, ebola and poisonous chickens threatening to overwhelm us, you would think the British have enough to worry about. But newspapers keep spreading alarm about the weather. On 10 October, the Express warned that, “within weeks”, Britain would be hit by “savage frosts and thick winter fogs” followed by “heavy and persistent snow, freezing gales and sub-zero temperatures [which] threaten to grind the country to a standstill for up to five months”. (The Express carried a similar report warning of “record-breaking snow” in October 2013.)

By early December, all newspapers were warning of “a weather bomb”. The Mirror predicted that “wild storms and freezing temperatures could last till Christmas”. As I write, the Mail reports that, in the New Year, “some areas could be blanketed by five feet of snow”.

You have to read carefully to grasp that the forecasts apply mainly to northern and western Scotland. Perhaps the weather will deteriorate and, with no papers on 25 Dec­ember, we shall be unprepared. Have a good Christmas but please take care.