Exposed: why editor who backed Iraq war lost fight for his paper

Roger Alton quit 'The Observer' after rejecting the drive to a digital future backed by his rival, Alan Rusbridger
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The Independent Online

It was billed as a bitter falling out of comrades on the left, a vicious civil war between two leaders of totemic papers of the liberal intelligentsia.

But when the dust settled and the blood was mopped up, the casualty count stood at two – Roger Alton, the maverick, award-winning editor of The Observer, and his trusted lieutenant, executive editor Kamal Ahmed.

Alton's sudden resignation last week was the culmination of months of argument between Alton, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and other senior directors of the Guardian Media Group about the fate of the newspapers.

Rusbridger had presented Alton with the unpalatable prospect of surrendering his editorial autonomy. Rusbridger wanted to boost The Guardian's online operation by switching staff from the venerable Sunday newspaper for at least half their working week.

Alton's response was less than enthusiastic. He had no desire to see The Observer swallowed up by The Guardian and its editor's dream of a digital future.

His resignation prompted acres of poisoned prose with an array of names dragged into the fray. Former Blair spokesman Alastair Campbell, it was said, amended the now infamous Iraq dodgy dossier in 2003 with the help of Ahmed when Alton's colleague was The Observer's political editor.

Nick Davies, an award-winning reporter, it was suggested, threatened to expose Observer editorial failings in his forthcoming book Flat Earth News.

Speculation that Alton's resignation was linked to the impending publication of his book was dismissed by Davies.

"The book does not accuse Kamal Ahmed of helping to write or edit the dodgy dossier. The hacks who are saying Alan Rusbridger commissioned me to write a chapter about The Observer in order to undermine Roger Alton are simply wrong," he said.

Senior sources at The Observer and The Guardian played down reports that Alton's prominent support for Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq had also undermined his stock with the Scott Trust, the independent body set up to guarantee the impartiality and long-term future of the papers.

In reality it was Alton's failure to beat off Rusbridger's arguments for a 24/7 digital news operation that prompted his exit.

The Observer editor chose his own departure date, and, together with a few select Guardian Media Group executives, kept his counsel until he announced it to his assembled staff last week. While there were statements of support from senior figures with the Guardian group, from Rusbridger there was none.

Ahmed resigned as executive editor news earlier this month to become director of communications at the new Equality and Human Rights Commission.