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Bad news at the Guardian – is it too late to apply the brakes?

The Guardian’s abiding problem is that the people who run it seem unable to add up, or at least read a balance sheet.

By Peter Wilby

When I was writing about the Guardian and its then editor, Alan Rusbridger, for the New Statesman in 2012, an ex-employee told me that “he’s driving the thing at high speed towards a brick wall”. Now Rusbridger has left the editorship to lead an Oxford college but the brick wall looms ever closer. Operating losses are likely to exceed £50m in the current financial year, a whopping sum even by the Guardian’s standards. An “investment fund”, boosted to nearly £1bn in 2014 by the sale of the parent company’s remaining stake in Auto Trader – which, it was said, secured the paper’s future “for generations to come” – is already down to £735m. The chief executive, David Pemsel, has just announced 20 per cent cuts, almost certainly including job losses. Whether it’s too late to apply the brakes remains to be seen.

You could argue long into the night about the company’s past decisions and Rusbridger’s role in them. New presses costing at least £80m to print the newspaper in the Berliner format; gleaming new premises near King’s Cross Station; newsrooms in the US and Australia to establish the paper as an international digital brand; a “civic space” for cultural events in a former railway shed in King’s Cross – all these ventures, plus the refusal to countenance any sort of paywall for the website and then the sale of Auto Trader, a long-standing cash cow, are widely criticised.

The Guardian’s abiding problem, however, is that the people who run it seem unable to add up, or at least read a balance sheet. Company revenues are up 10 per cent over the past five years, which isn’t bad in these straitened times. Alas, costs rose by 23 per cent, with 479 new editorial and commercial staff hired to work on a paper that already has many more journalists than its rivals. The top brass may argue they were caught out by the slowing economy, though there were ample warnings in their own financial pages. For a relentless critic of Tory policies, the Guardian showed a touching faith in George Osborne’s economic miracle.

The press and useful idiots

Pemsel’s demand that the Guardian “align editorial and commercial operations” and do more “native advertising” or “branded content” will cause particular alarm among hacks. These are polite terms for running more commercially sponsored features that often blur the distinction between advertising and properly independent editorial. Having spurned a paywall, the Guardian desperately needs online sponsorship, particularly with readers increasingly using apps that block conventional adverts.

The Guardian already accepts quite a bit of “native advertising”, something that has existed for decades; for example, all upmarket newspapers used to run supplements sponsored by Middle Eastern sheikhdoms and similarly dubious regimes. Leftist hacks and readers protest, particularly when the sponsors are tax-dodgers, climate-polluters, labour-exploiters and so on. Guardian editors should follow my practice at the NS, which was to ask complainants why I would turn away capitalists who wanted to pay the costs of an anti-capitalist publication.

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The BBC’s OAP tax

If we lefties want to preserve independent media, untainted by the wickedness of commerce, we shall have to pay up. Not only does the Guardian invite us to show “deep support” by paying £60 a month to become “patrons”, the BBC implores us to keep paying the licence fee, currently £145.50 annually, even when we’re over 75 and entitled to a freebie. The corporation should take care. If enough oldies respond, the Tories may decide they can safely exempt everybody from the compulsory licence fee, leaving the BBC to survive as a subscription channel.

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The Met gets “Nicked”

After the police announced they had insufficient evidence to charge Lord Bramall, the 92-year-old former head of the British army, with historical child abuse offences, some commentators suggested those accused of sexual abuse should have the same rights of anonymity as their accusers. A better solution would be for the police to treat claims of “paedophile rings” involving “top people” with polite scepticism. The world is full of folk who claim to be victims of high-level conspiracies and cover-ups, often involving the Duke of Edinburgh. The conspiracies involve all manner of things – loss of job, suppression of a world-changing invention or, in Mohamed Al Fayed’s case, his son’s death in a car crash with Lady Diana – and paedophilia gets added to the list when it’s in the news.

Most journalists, MPs and detectives are familiar with such cases. The Metropolitan Police presumably failed to recognise the allegations of Bramall’s accuser “Nick” as an example because of the hysteria that followed Jimmy Savile’s belated exposure.

Parkinson’s bum note

Some men deserve their reputation. I met Cecil Parkinson, who has died aged 84, only once. It was in the bar at the Conservative party conference. He nudged me and, with an expression on his face for which the word “leer” might have been invented, nodded towards a young woman, saying, “She’s got a jolly nice bottom, hasn’t she?”

Swiss snow is best

With El Niño and global warming, I sometimes wonder if we shall ever see significant snow in London again. So during a visit to Geneva, it was good to be reminded on a train journey into the Alps of the beauty of a pristine, snow-covered landscape. Here and on the US eastern seaboard, snow brings fretful activity as we struggle against what our newspapers call “chaos”. In Switzerland, it seems to create a sense of calm and good order. When we set off, it had snowed most of the night and was still falling in significant quantities. I asked at the station ticket office if the trains were running. The tone of the answer suggested this was an idiotic question that only the English ever asked. And true to Swiss form, our trains ran to the precise timetabled second. 

This article appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?