Stephen Glover on the press

'The Observer' must be allowed to continue speaking its own mind
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The Independent Online

Is it not strange that when a Cabinet minister of little significance is sacked the media get so worked up, whereas they largely turn a blind eye when a considerable editor with 10 years' service is removed?

Last Wednesday, Roger Alton resigned as editor of The Observer. Actually, he was manoeuvred out. Only a handful of newspapers remarked on his departure. The normally reliable online MediaGuardian did not attempt to tell the true story. The Guardian, of course, owns The Observer.

Even the official rationale behind Mr Alton's departure was not mentioned by MediaGuardian. For months there have been talks about integrating parts of The Guardian and The Observer. The justification is that The Observer is losing money, as, to a lesser extent, is The Guardian, and economies can be made by merging departments and turning The Guardian into a seven-day paper, though the integration of daily and Sunday titles hasn't worked for other publishers in the past. According to one source, news, business and sport will be brought closer together.

There is a darker explanation of last week's events. In the phrase of someone close to Mr Alton, what took place was "a land grab" by Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, and his allies. For years resentment has been mounting on the paper at The Observer's independent line on issues such as the Iraq War, the MMR jab, inheritance tax and even David Cameron. The Observer has had the temerity to think for itself, and sometimes to come to different conclusions to the more conventionally leftist Guardian.

But even this might have been tolerated had Mr Alton not made the mistake of being a more successful editor than Mr Rusbridger. The Observer has done much better than its daily sister since both papers invested in expensive new presses and adopted the European Berliner format. The Guardian has lost circulation – some 5,000 or 10,000, according to how one does the sums – since its changed format, while The Observer, in a no less competitive market, has gained almost 100,000 sales. Such success is liable to be punished by envious spirits.

We cannot legislate against jealousy, but there is a public interest issue that has been missed as a result of the media's lack of interest in this story. In 1993, Newspaper Publishing, then owner of the Independent titles, tried to acquire The Observer to merge it with The Independent on Sunday. The prospect that The Observer might disappear caused uproar. As The Guardian emerged as an eleventh-hour "white knight", more than 100 Labour MPs signed a motion urging that it, rather than Newspaper Publishing, be allowed to buy The Observer. There was much relief when The Guardian prevailed. Whereas Newspaper Publishing's plan threatened The Observer's future, The Guardian promised that the Sunday newspaper would be kept alive as a separate entity rather than becoming a seven-day version of The Guardian. In an address to The Guardian's editorial staff on 29 April 1993, the paper's then editor, Peter Preston, explicitly made this undertaking.

The important point about Mr Alton's defenestration – apart from it being monstrously unfair to one of the most gifted and successful of editors – is that it may mark the first stage in the incorporation of The Observer into The Guardian. The Guardian represents itself as virtuous and high-minded. It is buttressed by an enormously rich media group. It must not be allowed to kill off the paper it claimed to save.

Facts? I don't think so

I should have written last week about the strange case of The Independent and the Foreign Office memorandum.

On 18 October, this paper presented "10 myths about the EU treaty" on its front page, and ran an article on page three debunking these myths. A sharp-eyed Eurosceptic named Neil O'Brien noticed that the article was almost a verbatim reprinting of a Foreign Office briefing note.

Simon Kelner, the editor of The Independent, did not roll over and put his legs in the air. His robust defence was that his paper had "printed a collection of facts, which our political editor independently verified", and he was "completely unapologetic about our attempt to explode the myths that have been allowed to develop in what has been an extremely one-sided debate".

Does this do? I don't think so. I should declare that, unusually for a columnist on this paper, I am a Eurosceptic, but I don't think this makes any difference to my argument. The Independent was not, of course, reproducing facts, but an interpretation of facts. Whether this interpretation was correct or not is beside the point.

Imagine how we would feel if the Daily Mail or The Daily Telegraph reproduced a Tory briefing note without attribution. Even if we agreed with the interpretation, we would feel that we had been wrongly kept in the dark. How much stronger would we have felt this if these newspapers had passed off an official policy paper as their own work when the Tories were in power?

A newspaper is perfectly within its rights in agreeing with the Government of the day, but if it directly borrows its arguments it should say so. Even then it would be preferable, by way of establishing one's independent credentials, to amplify and refine those arguments oneself.

scmgox@aol.com

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