New Government! New Guardian! Alan Rusbridger is shaking up his staff with Blairite conviction
Monday 02 June 1997
Those words of Oscar Wilde, drawn from The Picture of Dorian Gray, weren't cited by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, in an unsettling electronic memo which he sent out recently to specialist writers on his staff. But they might as well have been.
Accusations of ageism, arrogance and authoritarianism have been levelled at Rusbridger's regime since he seized upon the change of government to suggest that it might be time for changes on The Guardian's staff. A samizdat-style denunciation faxed to rival titles, including The Independent, claims that The Guardian's youthful editor is "busy trying to rid the paper of some of its most stalwart specialists ... moving or pushing out many of the best-known names from the Preston days."
But, Rusbridger, who succeeded Peter Preston as editor just over three years ago, can brush off these accusations as easily as Tony Blair, in this time of triumph, can laugh off Leo Abse's excoriating psychological study, The Man Behind the Smile: Tony Blair and the Politics of Perversion. Just as Abse defended Ancient Labour, The Guardian's self-styled "stalwart specialists" argue that the unprecedented new popularity of a radical old institution to which they have devoted their working lives has been gained at an unacceptable price.
Rusbridger's ageing critics haven't gone so far as to cite Freud, but their criticisms of "New" Guardian are as venomous as those levelled at New Labour. And, in the present triumphalism, as futile.
Rusbridger came across as supremely relaxed when I met up with him in his office a few days ago. In fact, he was positively beaming throughout our hour-long chat.
He declined to endorse direct parallels between himself and Tony Blair - "You may do so but it would invite derision if I did" - but he did state with apparent pride: "The process of modernisation on The Guardian has reflected the process of modernisation in the Labour Party. We've reached the same conclusions by separate routes."
Asked to elaborate on this, he said that the old Guardian, like Old Labour, "opposed lots of things the Tories did which we'd now think weren't terribly bad in retrospect ... I mean, a lot of the trade union stuff doesn't seem as horrendous now as it seemed at the time."
He believes that morale at its Farringdon Road home fell to a dangerously low level in the late 1980s when the New Right's political hegemony seemed impregnable and The Guardian was "stuck in a very Old Labour mindset and basically pissing in the wind". Now "we are read by the people in power".
Buoyed by the May Day victory of Blairism - and a corresponding surge in The Guardian's circulation last month - Rusbridger is now effectively neutering his newspaper's own unwritten version of Clause Four, which basically held that a specialist post on Britain's liberal-left broadsheet should be like academic tenure at an ancient university.
Oh yes, of course he broadly believes that Guardian staffers should still be able to count upon a job for life, but no one can expect to hang on to the same job all their life. "By and large I believe in cuddly management, and that is what I'm practising," he explained. "But, as with a Cabinet reshuffle, there will be a few people who get moved to the backbenches." The whole aim of the exercise, he insists, is to root out pockets of stagnation and grant opportunities to bright youngsters.
Rusbridger, who is 42, could pass for one of the twentysomethings whose youthful energy and eagerness he so evidently values. But he swiftly counters accusations of ageism by telling you that the colleague he leans upon most for advice is David McKie, an assistant editor who is in his early sixties. McKie, one suspects, performs the same role at New Guardian as John Prescott performed for New Labour before the election. Doubtless he would say that Rusbridger's project is all about "traditional values in a modern typeface".
Already there are still a few Jeremiahs who warn that the euphoria will fade and both New Labour and New Guardian will soon experience a downturn. The media consultant Jim Chisholm reminded us recently that The Guardian tends to struggle rather than thrive under Labour governments.
Rusbridger brushed off that report. He counters, quite justifiably, that The Guardian - or The "Grauniad" as we affectionately knew it - was a quite different paper when Jim Callaghan was in Number 10. Once sombre and grey, it has lightened up and broadened its appeal considerably.
Rusbridger himself now openly mocks the "brown bread and sandals brigade" who formed the bulk of the paper's readership back then. The twentysomethings who today increasingly dominate New Guardian's newsroom, he points out, "are proud of working for what they see as a rather hip metropolitan paper".
Doubtless, these able and ambitious young thrusters are thrilled to be in a happening workplace guided by an editor who, like our new youthful PM, is possessed by the Dorian Gray syndrome. But, as they fantasise about their bright futures at Farringdon Road, they might do well to remember these wise Wildean words: "For there is such a little time that your youth will last - such a little time ... The pulse of joy that beats in us at 20 become sluggish."
Alan Rusbridger's young Turks, like the eager young Blairites, cannot deny the ageing process. They too will succumb to sluggishness. Who, then, will be their guardian?.
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