A guardian fighting on two fronts

Alan Rusbridger has had a problematic first year as editor of the Guardian. But with tensions mounting over his newspaper's relationship with the loss-making Observer, his second year may be more difficult. By Mathew Horsman
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The Independent Online
One year into the job and Alan Rusbridger has found that being appointed editor of a national newspaper is to inherit a crown of thorns. The 42-year-old has just been named Editor of the Year, but after a first six months in charge of the Guardian characterised by rapid-fire personnel changes, plunging morale and a simmering industrial dispute, he now faces greater troubles. The big black cloud is the financial distress of its sister publication, the Observer, which could plunge the Guardian itself into financial ruin. Not that Rusbridger's own paper is making money: competitive pressures along metaphoric Fleet Street are not conducive to profits, but that does not bother him much. What other national newspaper editor could say, quite so breezily: "It doesn't really matter if the Guardian loses moderate sums of money"?

Perhaps the confidence is merited. Rusbridger has the backing of the Scott Trust, the charitable institution which controls the Guardian, as well as cash-cow publications like the Manchester Evening News and Auto Trader. The Scott Trust's wealthy members may express their concern about the miserable performance of the Observer but, for bigger brother, there is nothing but apparently parental pride.

More problematic is the fear, expressed throughout the newspaper, that the Observer losing a rumoured pounds 10m a year, will drag the Guardian down. "We should never have bought it in the first place," laments one senior journalist, who talks darkly of "leeching resources" to feed the insatiably needy Sunday paper.

Not a chance, says Rusbridger. He insists the Guardian has been "ring- fenced". Indeed, the Scott Trust has even considered selling the Observer, an admission that it may have no future under the Guardian's wing. Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, the London department store, has offered pounds 15m for the title. Few Guardian hacks would be upset to see it go but no sale has been agreed, and one suspects the Guardian Media Group is not yet ready to admit failure.

There is much talk of "integrating" the two titles in an effort to save costs. Indeed, by some accounts, Rusbridger himself has argued for a "seven- day operation", giving him control of both titles. But in his public utterings, at least, Rusbridger insists there are no plans to merge: "There may be a case for a single golf correspondent, and I don't see why we need to send two photographers to an event. That is as far as it goes." He claims he has no interest in taking on the Observer, currently edited by the hapless Andrew Jaspan, but has made it clear he would want some control over any plans to integrate operations: "I certainly don't want a role editing the Observer. Editing one paper is obviously enough. But if we were to try any integration, how you achieve the logistics is something I would like to have a hand in."

He vehemently denies any link between the Observer 's tribulations and the "voluntary" redundancy scheme introduced at the Guardian two weeks ago (it has set aside enough money to encourage 12 or so journalists to leave with attractive packages). The job cuts are part of an effort, he says, to ensure the Guardian breaks even this year. But he has no intention of sharp cuts in staff and spending: "Serious journalism costs money."

The Guardian is a serious newspaper - most of the time. On the standard guides of circulation and advertising volumes, it has held its ground: a moderate money-loser in an industry awash with red ink.

On more subjective criteria - influence, say, or authoritativeness - the jury is split. Some find the newspaper's present tone a bit smart- alecky, and question the mid-market tinge to some Rusbridger-inspired front pages. These criticscomplain that the paper is no longer weighty enough about politics and is too fixated on "issues".

That view is expressed particularly by the high-minded sections of the paper, notably foreign news, where putting supermodel Naomi Campbell rather than Bosnia on the front page is viewed as a heinous crime. One insider is harsh: "Rusbridger and his team seem to think any story involving the mafia, drugs and serial killings, preferably in America, is a wet dream."

Many are also uncomfortable with the Guardian's newly minted swagger. It routinely, and cheekily, bleats about its scoops and its prizes in a most un-Guardian way: the announcement of Rusbridger's Editor of the Year award, for instance, occupied an entire half-page. Others do not much mind the mix of high-mindedness and mild frivolity, and point to a continued commitment in the Guardian's pages to coverage of more weighty matters.

The mix surprises no one who knows Rusbridger well. A Cambridge graduate, he began his career in journalism on the Cambridge Evening News. He joined the Guardian in 1979, and except for two brief spells - the first an unsuccessful stint as TV critic at the Observer in 1986, the second a year later at the ill-fated London Daily News - he has been at the Guardian ever since. He was features editor for six years, and was responsible for the comment and analysis page (among the worthiest in the paper). But he also helped launched G2, the second section, home to the more lurid stories.

Rusbridger, married with two children, defends the balance. "People get terribly hung up on this, and they think if you do a story about the royals or Paula Yates and Bob Geldof you can't be taken seriously. We know we are all perfectly capable of being interested in the love life of Prince Charles and by the convergence factors for the period after the Intergovernmental Conference. Most people have these two sides.

Like the newspaper he edits, Rusbridger is smug at times. Most of his colleagues say this is a cover for shyness. Asked which competing newspapers worry him most, he says: "I'd be lying if I said the Independent, but you won't print that." (That said, it is odd how often he draws comparisons between the Independent and his own paper.) In story conferences, by all accounts, he is polite and thoughtful. He has a real interest in politics and current affairs, but is happy to listen to jokes. He is also taciturn and rarely makes his view plain. Even those close to him say he is "distant" and "remote".

In selecting him as Editor of the Year, the What the Papers Say judges liked his subtle changes, introduced without fanfare and without attracting the attention of readers. The uncharitable suggested Rusbridger was being rewarded for, well, not doing very much. He is unrepentant: "I'd be very pleased if people think my editorship has been subtle. People know exactly what the Guardian is, but it has managed simultaneously to remake itself. You can see the same principles at work, but reinterpreted to suit the age."

Peter Preston, his predecessor, now editor-in-chief, professes to like the Rusbridger regime. "I think the Guardian has excelled generally, and am pleased by the performance of those who have taken over from me," he says, rather regally.

The view inside is less serene. Says one staffer: "There has been a lot of tension between the two, especially when it became clear that Rusbridger was coping so well." It is also believed that Preston is less than happy to have been left to deal with the Observer. But he is resisting any efforts by Rusbridger to extend his empire.

The tension extends to relations between Rusbridger and Jaspan at the Observer. The two communicate rarely. Staffers tell of a memo sent by Jaspan to Rusbridger, complaining about a story that ran in the daily paper as a follow-up to an Observer scoop. Jaspan suggested the Guardian might want to make a copyright payment. A case of sibling rivalry, or a declaration of war?