18 March 2016

Save The Guardian. Really


There will be those who regard the latest events at The Guardian as a cause for celebration. Here are the anti-market lefties of Kings Cross getting a long overdue lesson in how the world works, you might say. How funny. The cash pile that The Guardian built from the sale of assets including its stake in Autotrader is eroding faster than a glacier off the coast of Greenland. It stood at £740m in January, down from £838.3m last July, because of the hammering investments have taken this year. The company’s operating losses were a staggering £58.6m last year and the new editor (the highly capable Kath Viner) is having to cut 250 jobs as part of a three year plan to stem the losses and save The Guardian. Talk of saving it is not an exaggeration. At this rate, with the media in such a state of flux and display print advertising collapsing, the place will be lucky to see 2025.

I’m not one of those celebrating. Indeed, quite the opposite. I wish Viner and her team the best of luck. If The Guardian and other serious news operations committed to protecting editorial integrity fail we could end up living in a world full of cat video websites serving up algorithmic inanity and advertorial masquerading as news, which will mean a political discourse even more stupid than it is right now. Governments will then get an even easier time, safe in the knowledge that there is no-one left to investigate what they are up to.

I’m also not rejoicing quite simply because a lot of people at The Guardian will lose their jobs and others – among them friends – will live for years with the fear that they are next if this first round of cuts doesn’t work. Many journalists and commercial staff across the industry in the UK and the US have been through this in the last decade and now it is heading for The Guardian, which thought it was immune.

But The Guardian’s decline is tinged with personal sadness. In the 1980s I grew up reading the paper every day, and if my views on economics, politics and foreign affairs have (putting it mildly) diverged from The Guardian, I still relish an article by Ian Jack more than just about anything else in print. I could read his pieces, as they used to say, until the print falls off. Other writers, such as Nancy Banks-Smith, who recently came out of retirement to write about the passing of the creator of Coronation Street, have provided joy in abundance.

For many years I continued to read the paper along with other titles until I became aware that it was moving even further left and becoming North London-centric. This will sound odd. The Guardian has long been on the left, although its origins are liberal. But it has shifted steadily over the last decade as its connection with Britain, or England beyond the capital, diminished. It charged off in pursuit of online dominance in the US, leaving the paper to be too London. The paper and the website were increasingly produced as if they came exclusively from Planet London, which for all its hipsterish excitement is far too small and cut-throat a media market to maintain an organisation employing many hundreds of people. And the old balance, in which the far lefties were outnumbered by sensible Guardian people, seemed to steadily erode too. There are still many good people there, but they give the impression of being a minority surrounded and under siege.

To The Guardian’s credit, efforts have been made in recent years to redress the balance, and there is once again excellent reporting from the North of England and a highly-respected team in Scotland. I only know this from Twitter, however, and occasional glimpses of the paper when I see it lying around. I no longer buy it, having drifted away even from the Saturday paper ages ago when one of the executives saw fit to start messing around with Ian Jack’s column, subdividing it to make it, for a while, a notebook format to which the great man was ill-suited. Just let him write about whatever he wants, whether that be India, marmalade, City fraud through the ages, architecture, parks, celebrity, Fleet Street, or Scottish holidays in the 1950s. Just let him write one, long glorious read. So I lost the purchasing habit. And once a newspaper loses you, it rarely gets you back because people take the slight of having been taken for granted as a customer rather personally. Silly, but there you go.

A few other observations on The Guardian in crisis:

1) None of this is easy for those running that company, I’m sure. For five years I edited two newspapers in Scotland – first The Scotsman and then Scotland on Sunday – and while I think the team involved did a terrific job, there was always the grinding battle, again against the backdrop of digital insurgency, to keep existing readers happy and attract new people in an era when conventional newspapers are in steep decline. But The Guardian should have found it easier. It had major advantages over its rivals, thanks to that Autotrader cash. Appallingly, those advantages appear to have been squandered and serious questions must be asked about what the management thought they were doing. If a big bank had been run this way, The Guardian would have splashed the story and run a spread inside.

2) Who guards the guardians of the Guardian? What on earth has the Scott Trust – the board of grandees that oversees the business – been doing? The insanity of the atrocious strategy (enormous staff, deplete print, no pay wall, expensive doomed diversification) has been obvious to outsiders for years. Throughout there has been widespread industry concern, including from perceived enemies such as the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre (someone who certainly thinks Britain needs a successful Guardian). Yet on and on they went, led by former editor in chief Alan Rusbridger.

3) This tale is yet another example of precisely why editors or company chief executives should not move upstairs to become chairman of the company they have been running. The corporate governance guidelines make it clear that it is a terrible idea, because the chairman may be tempted to protect their legacy, or their presence may inhibit their successors from taking a corrective course of action before it is too late. This was the origin of the failure of RBS, when Sir George Mathewson went upstairs at the bank to oversee his protege Fred Goodwin. Mathewson then even chose his successor as chairman, which not long before the crisis compounded earlier errors. Just a few weeks ago the Guardian’s Nils Prately was eloquently lamenting the current situation at the City giant Schroders, where the long-serving chief executive has moved up to an enhanced chairman role. There is widespread disquiet, quite justifiably. Yet who is the Scott Trust’s new chairman this year? Why, it’s Alan Rusbridger, who ran The Guardian for 20 years (presiding over many important scoops) and who should simply have retired to play the piano and run an Oxford College. If I was a member of staff or writer at The Guardian I would feel extremely disgruntled that the architect of The Guardian’s woes is now overseeing the editor.

But here is the good news. Optimism about up-market media is justified. Current affairs magazines are thriving. Everywhere I go I hear from smart people who do not want to live in a world of cat videos, lovely though cats may be. While the appetite for information, events and discussion about politics, ideas, economics, technology, books, music, art and much else besides, is immense, it is just economically impractical for it be provided by a massive organisation that employs such an enormous staff and burns through £100m a year. In media, as in high finance, where too big to manage established players are groaning under the weight of regulation and bureaucracy, part of the future may be boutique. In our small way, as a mere minnow on the pro-market side, that is what we aim to offer with CapX. But if anyone feels like gifting us a fortune in trust from the sale of a car magazine, I promise we would husband it very carefully.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.