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22 May 2016

Why the Guardian’s first priority is not profit, but to retain its character

From Kath Viner’s King Lear moment to shooting Meryl Streep’s latest turkey.

By Peter Wilby

When people who work for liberal institutions fall out, they do so in a big way. Because they believe themselves to be advancing a moral, even spiritual, cause – rather than merely earning a living – they cannot accept that they are acting from anything other than the highest, most selfless motives. Accusations of “betrayal” fly back and forth.

So it is at the Guardian, which believes its role is not so much to produce an informative and diverting newspaper as to protect Enlightenment values. Civil war began some months ago over who was to blame for the £50m annual losses that threaten its survival. Was it Alan Rusbridger, who left last summer after 20 years as editor to run an Oxford college? Or was it those in charge of advertising, marketing and finances, dismissively described by journalists as “the commercial side”? The mundane truth is that it was a bit of both.

Rusbridger left the editorship trailing clouds of glory. It was promised that he would be resurrected in September this year as chairman of the Scott Trust, the Guardian’s owner and custodian of its holy mission. Now, following hand-to-hand fighting, he will not.

This is his first significant setback since he failed the eleven-plus more than 50 years ago. He has not taken it well. A second even more mundane truth is that his successor, Katharine Viner – not his preferred choice but nevertheless a journalist whose career he nurtured – doesn’t want him looking over her shoulder. The rejection is as much personal as professional and there is a Lear-like dimension – “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child!” – to his fall.


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In Scott we trust

Newspapers rarely attract the best managers. Employees in any company will oppose spending cuts but, in newspapers, attempts to impose normal commercial disciplines are treated as though they were threats to slaughter the firstborn. Journalists, who mostly have little business sense and weak numeracy skills, demand “investment” when what they really mean is that a sugar daddy should be found to meet the losses.

This is particularly true at the Guardian, where the purpose is not to make profits but to protect the paper’s soul. Only journalists – and, above all, the editor – can reliably interpret the Scott Trust’s responsibility to ensure that the paper is “conducted . . . on the same lines and in the same spirit as heretofore”. Rusbridger sat not only on the trust but on the two boards responsible for overseeing day-to-day management of the Guardian, the Observer and the company’s other assets. Editors naturally want to spend lavishly on ambitious projects and maximise readership even when the cost exceeds the money the extra readers bring in. Rusbridger was peculiarly well placed to get his way, which included building a digital audience overseas without charging for access to the Guardian website. At most newspapers, the editor goes if he or she can’t work with the management. At the Guardian, it’s usually the other way round.


Figuring it out

All the same, the “commercial side” has a comfortable majority on both management boards. It could have waved a red flag if it thought the company was being profligate in hiring an extra 479 staff in recent years, mainly in the US and Australia. Instead, as recently as last July, Neil Berkett, chair of the Guardian Media Group, hailed a “third year of revenue growth” and narrowing of operating losses. Barely six months later, staff were told the company was heading for bankruptcy.

Was the Guardian struck by what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a black swan event? Not really. As the paper’s business plan predicted, the available pot of online advertising revenue is growing by about 20 per cent a year. Unfortunately, Facebook is scooping nearly all the growth. Many pundits warned of the threat that social networking sites pose to traditional news outlets. Besides, £50m losses do not spring from nowhere. In a volatile market, a wise management would have monitored revenues and costs across the company on a weekly basis.


Road to redemption

Happily, the spurned Rusbridger has a new project. Lady Margaret Hall, the Oxford college he runs, starts a pilot scheme this autumn whereby a dozen disadvantaged students will receive intensive free tuition and free accommodation on a nine-month foundation course before they apply, in the normal way, for a degree place. Something of this sort is needed to correct the gross social imbalance in elite university admissions. Oxford keeps raising its A-level entry requirements while adding aptitude tests and more probing interviews. Fee-­charging schools have the resources to prepare students for such hurdles. The alternatives are private companies such as Oxbridge Applications, which advertises “interview preparation” days for £395 and a “preparation weekend” for £1,795.

If Rusbridger can democratise Oxford admissions, it will more than redeem his mistakes at the Guardian, if mistakes they were.


Bum note

Some weeks ago, I suggested that news­paper critics’ ratings of film and theatre productions are suspiciously similar and wondered if collusion was to blame. The Sunday Times’s film critic Camilla Long should be exempted from such charges. Nearly all critics gave four stars to Florence Foster Jenkins, in which Meryl Streep plays a wealthy, early-20th-century American amateur soprano notorious for her execrable public performances and Hugh Grant plays her English common-law husband. Long described it as “a prize turkey” and gave it one star. Long was right. Once you have heard Streep sing amazingly badly, the joke, a thin one anyway, isn’t enhanced by hearing her sing badly again. Grant’s performance, meanwhile, is entirely interchangeable with every other performance of his life.

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This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster