As the army moved in, the style moved out

The Observer's owners have failed to understand its problems or its true identity.
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The Observer has now had three editors in the past three years, yet the three previous incumbents - JL Garvin, David Astor and myself - lasted 70 years between us.

This rapid turnover is a measure of the crisis of identity faced by the Observer since it was bought by the Guardian Media Group in 1993 and also, I would say, the failure of the new owners to understand that identity or the real nature of the newspaper's problems.

Those problems are not new, though they were hidden for two decades by subsidies from multinational corporations. In 1975, when I was offered the editorship by Lord Goodman, then chairman, he added cautiously: "You should consider whether you ought to accept, from your own point of view. I cannot guarantee that there will be an Observer in six months' time."

The Observer's unique dilemma was that it was a stand-alone publication, not attached to a daily group, paying seven days' costs out of one day's revenue. When that revenue came under pressure - from the advertising recession, the growth of Saturday papers, the aggressive marketing of the post-Wapping Sunday Times and the entry of two new competitors into an already crowded market - any prospect of profit disappeared.

Teaming up with the like-minded Guardian offered a way of rationalising costs across seven days. But the Guardian had its own agenda. The Observer's problems, the staff were told, were not chiefly commercial, but editorial - despite the fact that its circulation was much higher than the Guardian's (it still is) and that it was named Newspaper of the Year in which it was taken over.

After hearing Peter Preston's opening address to Observer journalists, Alan Watkins, the veteran political columnist, was heard to mutter, "They're like a conquering army," and soon moved on.

Had they continued like a conquering army - ruthlessly identifying weaknesses, merging overlapping services in news, business and sport, removing surplus Guardian as well as Observer journalists, yet preserving the Sunday paper's character through the voices of star columnists and critics - all might have been well.

Instead, however, the Guardian's staffing levels were treated as sacred and only Observer heads rolled. The new editor, Jonathan Fenby, replaced them with ex-colleagues from the Independent. Essentially a news and daily paper man with a serious interest in foreign affairs, Fenby had no feel for the Sunday dimension and became "frozen", as an Observer hand put it, "like a rabbit caught in the headlights".

The man who should have succeeded was Alan Rusbridger, who was more of a features man and, unlike Fenby, would have brought a generational change. When he went on to edit the Guardian, he would have been perfectly equipped to judge how the two papers could interact.

Fenby's actual successor, Andrew Jaspan, removed more Observer people and replaced them with a mix of Scottish and provincial writers and, alas, Janet Street-Porter. His relaunch failed, not because of the ugly headline face or the lipstick-coloured masthead, but because it conveyed no coherent style or new philosophy.

The review section is certainly an improvement, more like the Observer of old. The sports section has managed to survive the loss of star writers such as Hugh McIlvanney and Patrick Barclay. The business section lacks the authority of its rivals - neither the Guardian nor the Observer has ever really believed in business - and the magazine offers neither glamour nor entertainment (not to me, anyway).

But it is the news section that reflects the real muddle at the heart of the paper. At its best, the Observer had style, wit and conviction. It raised interesting questions, identified causes and became what George Orwell called "the enemy of nonsense". These are core qualities that the new editor, Will Hutton, has to recover.

He can count on the support and respect of the journalists, something denied to Jaspan. Despite his lack of editing experience (and the fact that he was not first choice), Hutton should sharpen the paper's political stance through the coming election. A Blair era, if such a thing comes to pass, might be good for the Observer.

"Cautious optimism" was one insider's verdict on the changes. The Scott Trust has at last moved decisively. Preston has paid the penalty for two wrong choices. Let's hope this is third time lucky.

If not, the next logical step - rather than a Faustian deal with Mohamed Fayed - would be a merger with the Independent on Sunday, which has an ex-Observer man, Peter Wilby, as editor, and quintessential Observer by- lines such as Neal Ascherson, Alan Watkins and Peter Corrigan. These days, in fact, it looks and reads more like the paper I joined 30 years ago.

The writer was editor of the `Observer' from 1975-93. He is professor of journalism studies at Sheffield University and chairman of Yorkshire Sound Radio.