Media: The Neil Report: So what does The Guardian stand for?

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The Independent Culture
Sales of The Guardian slipped by 6,500 last month to just under 394,000 - hardly a precipitous slide, but far enough below the symbolic 400,000 figure to cause concern. The worry becomes all the greater when you look at the six-monthly sales figures, a more reliable guide to circulation trends: these show that, in the six months to October, average daily sales were more than 18,000 down on the six months to October 1997.

There is just a hint of the start of a long-term decline in that figure, which has largely gone unnoticed by media-watchers. The decay is probably already worse than the bold sales figures suggest. The Guardian has so far been able to sustain average daily sales of around 400,000 thanks only to a substantial Saturday sale.

The newspaper's Saturday sales are more than 500,000, an impressive performance expensively built on the multi-section strategy at which Guardian editors sneered when I pioneered it at the Sunday Times. The Guardian also sells well on a Monday, thanks to its well-read media and sports sections.

Fair enough - except that strong sales on Saturdays and Mondays must mean that there are some days in the middle of the week when The Guardian sells fewer than 350,000. For the established and traditional voice of the liberal-left, in a country which voted overwhelmingly for liberal- left parties in last year's general election, a country which is run by a centre-left government with a huge majority, and in which liberal values (such as greater tolerance towards homosexuals in politics) are enjoying wider currency, that figure is surely something of a disappointment.

But then The Guardian has not taken well to Government. It had a protracted field day while the Tories were in power, developing into the self-appointed scourge of Thatcherism, keeping alive the flame of big-spending collectivism among its largely public-sector readers and, along the way, wrestling the mantle of investigative journalism from the Sunday Times with its exposes of the Neil Hamilton cash-for-questions debacle, the Jonathan Aitken scandal and, more recently, giving the most comprehensive account of what Ron Davies was up to on Clapham Common.

Tweaking the Tories while they were in power was naturally great fun for the Labour-leaning Guardian, and there was plenty to tweak, even if it was sometimes unpleasantly triumphalist as it put the boot in. It managed to incur the ire of right-wing bovver boys like Paul Johnson, Taki and Stephen Glover - enemies that any left-wing paper should collect with pride. Indeed, last week's media section generously devoted two pages to their anti-Guardian rantings, such is the paper's confidence in dealing with disaffected Tories.

Dealing with a Labour government, however, is another matter. The Guardian is almost as hated in Tony Blair's Downing Street as it was when Margaret Thatcher and John Major were the occupants. In fact, strike the word "almost" in that last sentence. The Tories knew The Guardian was the enemy, and expected no favours from it. But, as the country's only long-standing left-of-centre broadsheet, the Blairites had hopes that it would broadly support the first Labour government in 18 years. Instead, relations between Downing Street and The Guardian are even more venomous than they were in Thatcher's day. The Guardian has not even been New Labour's critical friend. A credible and defensible editorial stance would have involved signing up to the Blairite agenda, helping to shape it by providing the intellectual inspiration it badly needs, while reserving the right to criticise it when the paper thought it was going wrong. Instead, The Guardian has allowed its news pages to be permeated with an Old Labour bias, while handing over huge swathes of its comment pages to Old Labour has- beens. This approach reached its nadir in September, when an editorial urged Labour activists to vote for the left-wing slate in national executive committee elections. In Downing Street it was the final straw: The Guardian was no longer a paper to take seriously.

Now the purpose of a paper is not to keep Downing Street sweet, even when the party it supports is in power. Though my Sunday Times broadly supported the Thatcher agenda, I was banned from Downing Street for seven years because we never flinched from running stories which upset her. But we stood for a point of view she could not ignore.

Today's Guardian often seems to stand for nothing, except making life difficult for the Government in an unconstructive sort of way. It is a popular vehicle for Old Labour propaganda, yet it never quite endorses the Old Labour agenda in its editorials because the editor, Alan Rusbridger, knows that would be a ludicrous position for any forward-thinking newspaper to take.

As a former diarist, Mr Rusbridger is perhaps one of nature's critics. The put-down and the jibe come more easily to him than the constructive policy position (though he has made a seminal contribution to the privacy debate).We know what his Guardian does not like (New Labour and the Tories), but not what it stands for. He is not a hands-on editor and has given too much rope to the hard left, which permeates his paper's journalistic ranks for their destructive musings.

The cost of this delegation has been high: at a time when The Guardian should be the most influential newspaper in the country, it has little impact on policy and is largely ignored in Downing Street - except when it is being disparaged. It has also meant that, though it has kept its core readership of public-sector professionals, it has not been able to appeal to the younger, Blairite-inclined potential readership in the private sector. That could be why The Guardian is in gradual long-term decline.

Then there is The Observer. The Guardian has never been able to transfer its character or confidence to its Sunday sister, which has largely been an unwelcome drain on Guardian resources. This has caused much resentment among Guardian journalists, who rightly argue that their paper could have triumphed in an era of price-cutting if only they did not have to feed the voracious and failing Observer.

The latest in the brain-drain is Roger Alton, moved from being editor of the Guardian's much- admired tabloid second section to the helm of The Observer (its fourth new editor in as many years). This talented journalist has not yet managed to stop The Observer's downward spiral (still falling on the monthly figures, down 31,000 on the six-monthly comparison and selling below 400,000 full-price copies). But it has taken its toll on G2, which has lost its edge.

The Rusbridger Guardian is not a happy place. Its uncertain touch on national politics is combined with much internal politicking, which always flourishes in a myriad of poisonous ways under light-touch editors. The result has been a minor exodus, especially of female talent, leaving the paper even more of a male bastion than ever.

The Guardian remains a formidable newspaper, admired even by visceral enemies like Rupert Murdoch (with whom it is unhealthily obsessed). While other broadsheets like The Times and The Daily Telegraph have used price- cutting to bolster circulation, Guardian sales have been - at least until recently - remarkably robust, despite a 45p cover price. But the cost of standing still has been expensive in other ways, especially in building up the Saturday package. There is a danger that sales have slipped permanently below 400,000. There is talk of a major redesign early next year, which is what papers in trouble always resort to.

But it is not how The Guardian looks which is its Achilles heel. It is what it says and stands for - or rather the lack of what it stands for. Any editor with an interest in constructive criticism, ideas and policy can cheaply put that right - if they have a mind to.

Andrew Neil is editor-in-chief of `The Scotsman' and `Sunday Business'