A clutch of new editors is beginning to revive the fortunes of the liberal press. Richard Gott argues that the important battle is not between left and right, but between seriousness and trivialisation. He also confesses his own small role in nudging the Guardian newspaper down-marketby Richard Gott / July 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in July 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Recent ructions at the pompously-named Guardian Media Group, coupled with the change in ownership and editorship of the New Statesman, and the appointment of a new editor at the Independent, draw attention to the fortunes of the left-liberal press. They may even presage a change in the political clout of what for years has been denigrated as “the chattering classes,” a group once perceived less pejoratively as “the progressive intelligentsia.” The arrival of fresh faces, distinctive yet similar and coming all at the same time, suggests that important developments are in the wind-not just those which may foreshadow a Labour victory at some future election, but those which indicate a possible sea-change in the nature of the serious press itself. With Will Hutton at the Observer, Andrew Marr at the Independent and Ian Hargreaves at the New Statesman, what remains of the left-liberal axis in Britain suddenly has powerful new allies in the media. They may have arrived in the nick of time. The Independent, once a bright star in the firmament, has been in difficulties, both commercial and intellectual, for some time. The long decline of the Observer and the New Statesman, with their specific historical baggage, is more serious. Both have been dismal artifacts for some time. Their decay has reflected not just a febrile journalism, but a more general breakdown in left-liberal thought and action. Ever since the collapse, in the 1980s, of David Owen’s Social Democrats and of the forces associated with Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, this once powerful strand in public life has been noticeable more by its absence than its influence. In journalism, for much of this time, the right has had, if not necessarily the best tunes, certainly some of the best voices: the cultural sponge of the Sunday Times, buying up much of the available talent with little discrimination; the tweedy weekend-in-the-country columns of the Spectator, with their relished, almost self-mocking nostalgia for the past; the increasingly confident right wing sermons from the two Telegraphs. These have set both the political agenda and its tone. Many of the writers on these papers have enjoyed the kind of succ?s d’estime that was previously the chief reward of the left. Left-liberal papers, after all, didn’t hope to make a profit; they just expected to be read. Yet for sheer readability the right wing press has won hands down in recent years, and has received a commensurate commercial reward. Even more surprising, it has done so when its own side has been in power-always a difficult manoeuvre to pull off. Against these Goliaths, the liberal left has only been able to deploy a few Davids, yet these are the people now being given the chance not just to comment on events, but-as editors-to play a role in creating the context in which these comments are deployed. Will Hutton at the Observer, perhaps not a natural editor, is a man of immense enthusiasms readily communicated to others. He has been a successful and much read economic columnist at the Guardian. He has gone to the Observer to improve the rock-bottom morale of the staff, and more importantly to raise the intellectual tone of the paper. As a (distant) friend of the emerging Labour leadership, and as the author of the best-selling book, The State We’re In, he is well placed to explain and encourage when a Labour government finally comes along. Andrew Marr, the youngest of the new editors (he is still in his 30s), takes over at the Independent from the populist Charles Wilson. Marr has been a successful commentator, most recently at the Independent, but earlier at the Economist and at the Scotsman. He has the most difficult task. The Independent has little spending money and is poorly placed in the market. Yet Marr is a clever, witty, and energetic journalist; his book, Ruling Britannia: The Failure and Future of British Democracy, is a model political pamphlet-in some ways more radical than Hutton’s. Marr will certainly seek to return the paper to the seriousness that characterised its founding fathers, and, if successful, will once again pose a challenge to the Guardian. Ian Hargreaves, now at the New Statesman, is in his 40s, like Will Hutton. An experienced media administrator, he has been deputy editor of the Financial Times, head of news and current affairs at the BBC, and (briefly) editor of the Independent. It is clear, after just a few issues, that while the politics may be unexcitingly centrist, the New Statesman is claiming back its status as a serious magazine. If that formula can once again be made to sell-30 years ago it had a circulation of 100,000-then it might even prove a commercial success for its rich new owner Geoffrey Robinson, a Labour MP and close friend of Gordon Brown. The test will come for the magazine’s new editorial credibility if Labour wins. Change at the Observer was more remarkable. Andrew Jaspan was clearly not long destined to be editor. Almost the only dud among the invading force of talented Scots who now give character to much of the British press, his Observer was a dismal failure. But in getting rid of him the Guardian Media Group made an even bolder move. Peter Preston, enigmatic guru of the Guardian for 20 years and editor in chief of the Guardian’s recently acquired Observer, was suddenly dispatched to outer darkness-in a telephone operation reminiscent of a Latin American coup d’?tat. (Military coups in Latin America are traditionally bloodless: the insurgent general makes a few calls to regional commands to assess his level of support; he counts his cards and, if plentiful enough, he puts them down on the table when the president is otherwise engaged.) Mastermind of the coup against Preston was Alan Rusbridger, the versatile Hugh Grant lookalike who, within his first year as editor, has already set his own stamp firmly on the Guardian. Military coups, to continue the analogy, are often about simple things like budgets; so it was with the defenestration of Preston. Rusbridger’s coup simply reflected a growing disquiet at the Guardian that Preston’s Observer was eating into its seed corn. The long and successful struggle to make the Guardian financially independent was now perceived as threatened by the unsuccessful Sunday sister. But something more important is happening than a simple changing of the guard. With the appointment of Hutton and Marr, the papers’ owners have made an interesting break with the recent past. They have placed two men in editorial chairs who, if not intellectual leftists, have a distinguished trajectory which suggests that they are serious-minded persons of a left-liberal persuasion. We are looking, then, at the possibility of a move towards a new seriousness in the British press. If the old progressive intelligentsia-an influential force in British life before the first world war-is beginning to re-group, then for the first time in years it will have an opening to a sympathetic media. If this surmise proves true, it will be an interesting reversal of what had become the pronounced trend of the last ten years. In this period, almost all the serious newspapers sought to meet the commercial challenge of the post-modern, post-Thatcher era by moving away from serious concerns into the essentially non-political, non-ideological world of lifestyle and “yoof.” These changes were pioneered not only in the Rupert Murdoch broadsheets but also by the papers of the Guardian Media Group-first in Peter Preston’s Guardian, later in Andrew Jaspan’s Observer. They were imitated, with less success, by Charles Wilson’s Independent. They were not introduced without argument or debate. Indeed, some of the most important battles within and between newspapers, over recent years, have been not so much between left and right as between seriousness and trivialisation, between politics and lifestyle. The trivialisers have been in the ascendant. The word is unfair, of course. Newspapers, even the broadsheets, have always contained a fair amount of the trivial, the amusing, the irrelevant. What changed in the late 1980s, in the wake of Wapping, was the decision by the broadsheets to accept the challenge of the tabloids. Sex, crime, drugs, serial killers, sport, youth culture, royalty, pop music, gossip, fashion, Hollywood, rock stars, the media itself-all escaped from the ghettoes where they had once been suitably confined and were boldly moved on to the front page. You could find serious things in the broadsheets-Westminster politics, the warp and woof of foreign affairs-but you would have to wade through a lot of crap first. Newspapers have reflected the Zeitgeist. The same phenomenon could be noted in almost every country in the world where journalists and editors have held a finger up to the prevailing commercial wind. To survive as a newspaper, in the fiercely competitive market which arose after the collapse of the old printing order, everyone (except the Financial Times) felt obliged to travel down this road. Newspapers, by and large, have turned into consumer “products” that are no longer purveyors of serious information. For the most part they have become vehicles for the deployment of witty comment without substance and instant opinion without analysis. They are now artifacts of ephemeral consumption, all veneer and no chipboard. Their public “image” is no longer projected by the quality of the writing of their journalists but by their marketing departments and their advertising pitch. There are serious pieces in all the papers, but they are often hidden away, as if the editors didn’t really want them to be found. If you need to know what’s going on in distant parts, it’s now best to read a specialist journal or to telephone a friend. If you want to read serious criticism of books or the arts, you have to turn to the weeklies or monthlies which take an interest in these matters. The very newspapers that suggest themselves to be fundamental to the democratic process have done as much to devalue the coinage of politics as the politicians themselves. This is not the whole picture and things are changing. In any case, although I am now among those who deplore what has happened, I played a small part in it myself as features editor of the Guardian during early efforts by Preston to make that paper more accessible. It may have been a slippery slope. yet i rather doubt whether there was any real alternative to Preston’s vision. By and large, people have been getting the newspapers they seem to want. It has been a kind of democratic process. In the case of the Guardian, Preston became fascinated, quite reasonably, with the possibility of the paper being able to pay its way. The Guardian had always been a kept woman. It relied on the profits of the Manchester Evening News and, later, on those of the Auto Trader. Provincial small-ads and the sale of secondhand cars kept left-liberal opinion alive. Under Alastair Hetherington, Preston’s predecessor as editor, there was never any question of the paper breaking even. Always in the red, with a staff happily wearing a hair shirt in keeping with its politics, the idea of making a profit seemed a joke. The Guardian resembled nothing so much as a nationalised industry: it existed to continue a political tradition, to provide a service for its readers, and to give jobs to its journalists-for life. Many of the Guardian’s senior journalists, even today, were first appointed in the Hetherington era (which ended in 1975). If you wanted to make money, you wouldn’t have chosen to be a Guardian journalist. (An apocryphal joke is told of book reviewers who were not only not paid but had to give the book back as well.) The paper’s legal owners, the Scott Trust, a self-perpetuating oligarchy of the good and the not so great, played the role of the indulgent state. They were happy to indulge the continuing fantasy. Almost their sole task, as heirs to a tradition established by the Scott family long ago, was to enjoin the editor to conduct the affairs of the paper “on the same lines and in the same spirit as heretofore.” That tradition included not just a radical line on South Africa and the Sudan (some problems never go away), but also a parsimonious approach to money. Long before the Thatcher revolution, Preston had been convinced by the paper’s managing director, Gerry Taylor, a refugee from the world of advertising, that the key to the paper’s future lay in securing financial independence. Without that independence nothing could be done on a hunch. (For years it was impossible even to send a reporter abroad on a quick trip without two signatures on a cheque from Manchester.) But with circulation and advertising rising, and costs kept firmly under control, the distant nirvana of freedom, we were told, could eventually be ours. No one actually mentioned the word “downmarket” as we went in search of readers, though it was in that market that new readers obviously lay. Most people at a senior level accepted this logic. Throughout the 1980s I was quite prepared to help out in trying to modernise the stuffier corners of the paper that came under my aegis. Somewhere hidden among the millions of Daily Mail readers there must surely be a small layer of the old liberal News Chronicle element who could be lured to the Guardian if it wasn’t too forbidding. (The News Chronicle closed in 1960 with a circulation of over one million.) The strategy took time to work. I don’t recall a year during the 1970s and 1980s when there wasn’t some kind of crisis which endlessly postponed our independence day. When Preston became editor in 1975, large parts of the paper, including the foreign desk and much of the features department, were still run and edited from Manchester. Every night, as the two editions were brought together, was a potential nightmare. The London edition was printed in a tiny corner of the printing works of the gigantic Sunday Times, and the Guardian was never able to take real advantage of the departure of Lord Thomson’s Times from the streets for a year in 1979. When Murdoch’s Times moved to Wapping a few years later, the old Grays Inn Road presses were falling to bits. The reproduction became so bad that an edict went out forbidding the use of photographs of black people. Their pictures appeared as a dull smudge. When the newly minted, brilliantly printed Independent first appeared on the streets, with its wonderful use of photographs, the Guardian was in bad physical shape to meet the challenge. A cascade of Reuters money came just in time; and by the late 1980s, with computer technology installed and a printing press of its own in the Isle of Dogs, the Guardian was able both to fight off the Independent challenge and to begin to sail into the clear black waters of financial independence. By that time Preston had acquired a taste for being a businessman. Losing his cheerful mentor Gerry Taylor, and not exactly trusting his replacement, Jim Markwick, an entertaining former Tory candidate, Preston moved to secure most of the levers of power on the business side of the paper. His chief political columnist, Hugo Young, who had been rescued by Preston from the Murdoch Sunday Times, was drafted in to chair the Scott Trust. Almost without anyone noticing, Preston had become the editor-manager of what was still, in essence if not remotely in reality, an old-fashioned provincial family firm. Yet Preston was never a proper dictator. His department heads had considerable freedom, and he rather relished the sight of them doing battle with each other, only intervening when there was blood on the floor. Preston was also a sentimental Guardian man. He never liked losing a journalist, and usually made strenuous efforts to persuade people to stay-even the unsuitable or the obnoxious. But the tabloidisation of the paper continued relentlessly. Alan Rusbridger, as features editor in the 1990s, presided over the actual creation of a tabloid second section, and later, as deputy editor, out-Prestoned Preston in his zeal to establish a “broadloid,” a suitable home for the grandchildren of the readers of the News Chronicle. Lifestyle and youth were given their due attention, and some of the paper’s worthier stars were replaced by flashier operators. Rusbridger’s jaunty approach seemed in tune with the moment. While future editors like Hutton and Marr were preparing serious political tracts for the times, Rusbridger’s sole venture into hard covers was his Concise History of the Sex Manual, 1886-1986, with illustrations by Posy Simmonds. But the Guardian in the 1990s has been an imaginative, confident paper. Circulation, though firmly bolted for six years at around the 400,000 mark, has been a remarkable story. The Guardian held its own at a time when its competitors were cutting their prices. Readers weaned away by the Independent were lured back. When Preston handed over to Rusbridger as his heir apparent, early in 1995, the paper had never been in better commercial shape. Preston now had a chance to prove that the magic spell he had cast over the Guardian could be made to work on the Observer. The Guardian believed at first that the ethos and identity of the Observer had to be maintained. It was to be edited according to the Guardian rubric-“on the same lines and in the same spirit as heretofore.” So while the Guardian and the Observer merged their business and commercial departments, editorial was kept apart. Yet the Observer had been suffering from a prolonged identity crisis long before the Guardian made its purchase. What was “the same spirit as heretofore?” A newspaper’s identity is rather more than the name on the masthead. You could hardly reconstruct it solely on the redoubtable personalities of Katharine Whitehorn and Sue Arnold, the photographic archive of Jane Bown, and an icon of the late Farzad Barzoft. Nor, by the 1990s, did the Observer have an ideological position that was easily identifiable. The left-liberal tradition was at a very low ebb. Westminster politics, the fulcrum of British newspapers for so long, had itself become a boring subject for most readers. Almost all significant debate took place within the right wing press, the best part of it owned by a Canadian would-be baron with some intellectual pretensions. To cap it all, the ghost of the old radical Observer had slipped out of the hands of the Guardian team and was grasped firmly by the Independent on Sunday. The praiseworthy aim of the Guardian in buying the Observer-to preserve a valuable voice in the British spectrum-began to look speculative. If a new formula could not be found, the paper would have to be sold again, or closed. When Preston retired from the Guardian last year and took up the reins of the Observer (as editor in chief) he had clearly decided to give it the downmarket tabloidish treatment that the Guardian itself had earlier so successfully received. But in the case of the Sunday paper, the strategy turned out to be a misjudgment. Guardian ownership had done little to cure the Observer’s identity crisis; indeed, it may have made it more acute. There were still many readers out there, it seemed, who were not impressed by the changes. Perhaps they wanted something more serious. Or perhaps the climate itself is changing. The post-modern interlude may be drawing to a close. Whatever the explanation, Preston’s recipe failed. Meanwhile, the amateur press barons of the Scott Trust were becoming seriously embarrassed. With two national newspapers in their portfolio, not to mention some television interests, they suddenly realised that they were being expected to play in the same league as Conrad Black or Rupert Murdoch-a role for which they perceived (correctly) that they were wholly unqualified. Preston asked for time. The Observer could not be turned round in a matter of months. It had taken years to make the Guardian profitable. The Manchester Evening News had funded the Guardian for years. Why could the Guardian Media Group now not help to fund the Observer in the same way? But the Trust grew alarmed at the open-ended nature of the request. It already had an alternative plan for the Observer, from Rusbridger, which emphasised the paramount need to protect the Guardian. This was backed by Preston’s old allies on the business side of the Guardian group-who now turned against him. Preston was banished to the international press circuit where people are greeted as great editors in countries other than their own. Alan Rusbridger has now seized the chance to create yet another kind of Observer. His paper (he is the executive editor) clearly builds on some of its traditions, yet in the early weeks it has looked increasingly like a slightly upmarket Guardian. Will Hutton is nominally the editor, and will give it its political and intellectual tone. But this has been a boarding operation by Rusbridger’s Guardian-a last chance to make the ship seaworthy and set it on to a course that will take it out into the open sea. At this early stage it looks as if the Rusbridger/ Hutton Observer will not be the simple transference of a tried-out strategy from one newspaper to another. They appear to be trying something new-for new and changing times. The first signs are promising. News is sharper, foreign news has improved, and comment is stronger. Yet it remains to be seen whether arts, culture and criticism-an essential part of the traditional Observer’s view of itself (and part of the reason why it always sold more copies than the Guardian)-will follow this lead. The appointment of Robert McCrum of Faber and Faber as the literary editor is clearly a gesture towards seriousness. But the arrival of a long-time Rusbridger prot?g?, Jocelyn Targett, as the new cultural supremo-bought in from the Mail on Sunday-is not such an immediately encouraging sign. Yet if Targett, too, can escape from his taste for the juvenilia of the unlamented Modern Review, and take note of the changing climate, the new Observer might soon be able to engage in intellectual combat, on equal terms, with the Independent on Sunday. the observer and the New Statesman were once the flagships of the intellectual liberal left; then they capsized. What happened? It was not just a collapse of journalistic nerve. Was there a collapse of the progressive intelligentsia or did it simply withdraw into internal exile? It occurred at some moment in the late 1980s-perhaps in the wake of Labour’s election defeat in 1987 and the demise of the SDP, perhaps with the end of the cold war in 1989. It has been one of the underlying themes of the current era, though still largely unremarked. Not just in journalism, but in politics, history, and literature, the traditional intellectual liberal left has been all but submerged. Its absence has been most noticeable in politics itself. Harold Wilson’s government in 1964 contained-and was surrounded by-an immense display of talent. Crossman and Crosland, Kaldor and Balogh, were but the cream on the top of a university common room culture which fought hard to keep its place in the Labour party. Today, the Labour party has virtually no intellectuals in parliament. In history the story is much the same. Twenty years ago, AJP Taylor was still an influential figure; the great generation of British Marxist historians-Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Thompson, Christopher Hill and a host of others-bestrode the scene. In literature there has been an even more curious development. Thirty years ago, there was a generation of novelists and critics concerned with politics and society, of which the most obvious were Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart. This tradition has vanished. There has certainly been a revolution in literary studies, but deconstructing the text has had little political bite. Something similar has happened in journalism. Once there were figures like Andrew Shonfield, Peter Jenkins, the younger Paul Johnson, David Watt, Neal Ascherson: intellectuals politically committed to the liberal left. They have not been replaced in the next generation. A handful of foreign correspondents of the old persuasion still survive, and the Financial Times still recruits clever young writers, some of whom are left-leaning. This is, of course, an impressionistic argument. But most people, I suspect, would find the impression not wholly incorrect. Yet now, for the first time in years, there are real glimmerings of change. Maybe the expansion of higher education really is producing a new chastened intelligentsia which wants to know and understand what is going on-and wants once more to participate in public affairs. The fact that serious papers now have serious editors again suggests that someone, somewhere, thinks that readers are ready for serious discussion. There is an inevitable caveat. It may not happen. The heads of these new editors look about as safe as those of the revolutionaries in the first years of the French revolution. But if there really are serious readers out there, and if revived papers can compete aggressively for their attention, this is an occasion for rejoicing. It has come not a moment too soon.