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22 January 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

The sacked editor, the art of failing better and the Lib Dems’ portly “groping peer”

The old yardsticks of success no longer apply in a digital age: profitability, circulation, scoops. And with the Guardian's sale of its stake in Auto Trader, the newspaper world is taking huge risks.

By Peter Wilby

Tony Gallagher, who has been sacked as editor of the Daily Telegraph, is an old-fashioned newsman who spent 16 years at the Daily Mail and is famed for a robust management style. Under him, the Telegraph broke the story of MPs’ expenses. With the company profitable, and the paper’s print circulation over the past year steady, you’d expect the management to be happy.

But old yardsticks of success no longer apply in the digital age. Gallagher is to be replaced by two “acting print editors”, one for weekdays, the other for Saturday and Sunday. Jason Seiken, the chief content officer and editor-in-chief hired from the US last year, says: “We must . . . move beyond simply putting news and information online and be an essential part of the audience’s lives.” In that context, “print editor” sounds about as important as crossword editor and being appointed one, I fear, carries as few prospects as being made “illuminated manuscript editor” in the late 15th century.

In the US, at the broadcaster PBS, Seiken introduced “failure” into his staff’s annual appraisal, telling them “if you don’t fail enough times . . . you get downgraded”. No, I’ve no idea what he’s on about either, but we shall hear much more of it.

Auto erratic

The Guardian’s sale of its remaining stake in Trader Media Group (TMG) is scarcely less important than Gallagher’s departure. For the best part of 30 years, the group’s magazine Auto Trader provided the cash that kept the Guardian in rude health. In 2006-2007, the paper’s owners, the Scott Trust, decided to diversify its assets and sell half of TMG to private equity. It sank a chunk of the proceeds into another magazine publisher, Emap, which promptly fell on hard times. A funny kind of diversification.

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This time, the money will be invested more widely and wisely. It isn’t a panic sale; the Guardian will get as much for TMG now as it is ever likely to. But it doesn’t represent salvation for the Guardian, either. It, too, is striving, to quote Seiken, “to become an essential part of the audience’s lives” – management-speak for getting oodles of money out of them – and hopes to do so before revenue from print collapses and cash support from the Scott Trust runs out.

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We may be sure none of the money will be used to buy the Independent, now looking for a new owner. The bookmaker Paddy Power offers 66-1 against the Guardian. The favourite is the Express and Channel 5 owner, Richard Desmond (5-2), followed by Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail (both 5-1). Those odds tell you all you need to know about the state of national newspapers and of the left-wing press in particular.

Pretty, Polly?

Last year, the BBC Sport presenter John Inverdale speculated that the Wimbledon tennis champion Marion Bartoli had been told by her father that “you are never going to be, you know, a looker”. Inverdale rightly apologised.

Now the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, writing about Lord Rennard, the Lib Dems’ “groping peer”, hypothesises that, if the allegations against Rennard are true, “power would have given this physically unprepossessing man the nerve to try his luck with younger, more attractive women”. “The portly peer”, she adds, was making passes at “women well out of his league”.

Is she implying that his behaviour would have been acceptable if he had been blessed with good looks? Is it OK to cast aspersions on the looks of a male politician but not on those of a female tennis player? I merely ask.

Alpine retreat

On the subject of portly peers, the former Tory party treasurer Lord McAlpine, who has died aged 71, was a celebrated bon viveur who had two heart attacks, “brought on”, he admitted, “by sheer gluttony”. Nevertheless, his friends, notably the Mail’s Simon Heffer, insisted his death was “hastened” by false allegations, originating in a BBC Newsnight investigation, propagated on Twitter and further fuelled by ITV’s This Morning, that he once molested underage boys at a children’s home.

Heffer even dragged in Sir David Bell, the subject of an extraordinary 12-page Mail hatchet job last year. Bell, a former Financial Times chairman and assessor to the Leveson inquiry on press regulation, was accused of orchestrating an elitist liberal conspiracy to gag the press. Now Heffer found it “interesting to note” that he was a trustee of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which provided inaccurate information for the BBC programme.

Only the Financial Times obit recalled that McAlpine, a keen art collector, acquired “nude portraits of seemingly pre-teen girls” which he later sold. No doubt the Mail will see Bell’s long arm behind the inclusion of this curious fact.