Observe the difference

It is a year since Will Hutton replaced Andrew Jaspan as editor of the 'Observer'. On the first anniversary of a ruthless putsch at Britain's oldest Sunday newspaper, Rob Brown finds parallels with the Jacobite rebellion. Hutton may be no Hanoverian, but the Jaspanites have suffered the same fate as the Jacobites...
The Friday before last a brief celebration was staged in the Observer's offices at Farringdon Road in one of the scruffier districts of fashionable north London. Champagne and a large cake were wheeled into the newsroom to mark the first anniversary of Will Hutton's editorship. Hutton was on a double high since the sequel to his best-seller The State We're In - entitled The State to Come - was to be heavily promoted in the upcoming issue of his paper. Readers were to be offered a mini version of the book.

Someone who assuredly did not race out for a copy was Andrew Jaspan, the man Hutton replaced in a brutal putsch at Britain's oldest Sunday newspaper 12 months ago. "I just don't see what Hutton and co have to celebrate," Jaspan told Media+ yesterday. "The Observer's circulation is still going down and it is still racking up huge losses. Why are they breaking open the champagne?"

The words of a bitter man? He would steadfastly deny it, but if Jaspan is nursing a grievance against the Guardian Media Group, owners of the Observer, it would be perfectly understandable. Having been summarily sacked after barely a year in the hot seat now held by Hutton, he is in severe danger of going down in history as the Bonnie Prince Charlie of British journalism. Indeed, there are several sad parallels between the fate of the Jacobites and that of the Jaspanites.

Charles Edward Stewart - the Young Pretender - made a bold bid in 1745 to lead a rising against the Hanoverians. Emboldened by victories against superior English forces in Scotland, he rounded up the Jacobite clans to invade England.

Andrew Jaspan developed similarly grand ambitions after routing the tartanised edition of the Sunday Times north of the Border and leading Scotland on Sunday to the title of UK Newspaper of the Year in 1994. In April 1995 he turned his back on SoS's sister paper, The Scotsman, to launch an assault on London as editor of the ailing Observer.

He did get further than Derby, but he did not last long in Farringdon Road. For, like the Bonnie Prince, he seriously underestimated the scale of his task. After 13 months of acrimonious squabbles with veteran Observer staffers and recurring tensions with the management of its resentful sister paper, Jaspan was put to the sword in a ruthless coup, believed to have been orchestrated by Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian.

The aftermath of the '95 Jaspanite Rising might not have been quite as savage as that of the '45 Jacobite Rising, but it was fairly stomach-churning stuff for a newspaper group that had always prided itself on its progressive ideals. Jaspan's clansmen suffered their own Culloden. Virtually all of them were booted out along with their leader as Rusbridger sent in his version of the Redcoats. Guardian men seized almost all the editorial levers of power. (One sole Jaspanite, the feature writer Euan Ferguson, survived by disguising his identity and penning "Mrs Blair's Diary").

Victors of bloody power battles are rarely merciful. Bonnie Prince Charlie had a hell of a time after his defeat. Forced to sleep rough in the Highland heather, the once dashing young Prince took to drink and died a sad, debauched figure at Frascati near Rome.

Andrew Jaspan has suffered less since meeting his Culloden, but he has certainly had his own humiliations in the past 12 months. Last August he startled many in the newspaper trade by becoming managing director of the Big Issue, the magazine that helps Britain's homeless to help themselves. It obviously pays a lot less, but he sees a lot more of his young family than he did during his annus horribilis at the Observer.

For a start, the Big Issue's offices are situated barely a stone's throw from those of the Guardian and the Observer. Inevitably, he frequently comes across former colleagues as he scooters into work (he's taken to two wheels since being stripped of his company car). "It's a bit like breaking up with your partner and bumping into them every morning at the breakfast table," he explained. "But they seem more embarrassed by such encounters than me."

Whether or not Will Hutton - strident advocate of stakeholding and employee rights and a forthright denouncer of the Hanoverian state - was embarrassed by the manner in which his predecessor was despatched is something the rest of us can only speculate upon. He declined to be interviewed for this article, claiming that he could not find time until after the General Election.

Hutton can't have much spare time either. As well as editing the Observer, this former stockbroker and Newsnight correspondent is a member of the governing council of the Policy Studies Institute and the Institute for Political Economy. He is also a governor of the London School of Economics, a visiting professor at Manchester Business School, a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, and is on the editorial board of the journal New Economy. He also became chairman of the Employment Policy Institute in 1995. And he keeps up a dialogue with his paper's readers on the Observer's website - via the so-called "Hutton Button". Still, one would have thought he could spare half an hour to do something his own journalists will be asking lots of other powerful people to do before the General Election - answer a few questions.

Perhaps Hutton is on a higher plane than Britain's three major party leaders? A puff in the Guardian modestly suggested that The State to Come is "the book that John, Paddy and Tony would kill for". In fairness to the author, his editorial overseer, Alan Rusbridger, may have been responsible for this hype. He contends that Hutton's biggest achievement so far has been "to give the Observer back its soul and intellectual credibility".

Doubtless Jaspan will read this as a dig at him. Barely had his appointment been announced by the Guardian Media Group before sneering media pundits - notably Stephen Glover, former editor of the Independent on Sunday - were questioning whether he had the brains to edit the Observer. (Another parallel with Bonnie Prince Charlie, who faced ferocious anti-Jacobite propaganda in the London papers.)

Jaspan dismissed such jibes as metropolitan myopia. He still likes to think that the main reason he got a much harder ride from the London media than Hutton gets is because Hutton is in the club, and he never will be.

But, London's journalistic elite isn't as close-knit as Jaspan imagines, as shown by a quick perusal of Britain's two political weeklies. The New Statesman this week carries the following bitchy diary item: "We hear that Will Hutton, the prolix Observer editor, is being trained by the former Scarlett MccGwire to be concise on TV. Officially it's to prepare him for coverage of his new book. But a recent Newsnight spot showed the state he was in. Let's hope the state to come is more coherent."

Ouch. And Hutton was on the receiving end of a scathing review this week in the Spectator. Robert Taylor, the Employment Editor of the Financial Times - who worked for the Observer in pre-Jaspan times - poured ridicule upon "poor Will Hutton" and his "excitable little tract". Taylor observed: "Like many left-wing intellectuals, he seems to believe we are on the eve of 'the strange rebirth of liberal England' ... How New Labour's callow young spin doctors in Millbank Tower must be laughing among themselves at such patent absurdity."

If Hutton has pitched the Observer somewhat to the left of the incoming Blair government, that will be no bad thing, according to Rusbridger. "As a general journalistic rule it's wrong for any newspaper to cosy up to any political party," he argues."The luxury of journalism is that you can say things which politicians find unsayable."

But some things are unsayable in struggling newspapers. For instance, no high-ups at the Guardian Media Group would dare say openly that the Observer, under Will Hutton's stewardship, still hasn't got it quite right. But there must have been some silently thinking such gloomy thoughts as they toasted the new editor's first year.

The Observer's sales fell a further 2 per cent to 450,090 last month and it is on course to lose over pounds 10m this year. The champagne may have given their spirits a temporary lift, but they're under no illusions about the state they're still inn