Dame Marjorie Scardino: The tycoon tipped to head the BBC Trust and a city that will never forgive her

Early on in her career, when the Georgia newspaper she published printed sensational details of a 1980 kidnapping, she was blamed for hampering the investigation and even provoking a murder, and found herself ostracised by society

US Editor

Mention the long-ago defunct Georgia Gazette to most people in the American port city of Savannah, Georgia, and you may get a flicker of recognition. It was founded by an ambitious young local man, Albert Scardino, and his then new wife, Marjorie, in 1978. From a few, however, the reaction will be entirely stronger. They clearly remember it – and its founders – and not always with fondness.

The arc of the newspaper’s rise and fall at first seems unexceptional. Albert, son of a prominent doctor in town, and Marjorie – they had met working for the Associated Press and wed in 1975 – thought the existing local papers, the commonly owned Savannah Morning News and Evening Press, were pedestrian and could be taken on. They had some success. Albert won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials. Their paper for a while snatched the county legal notices from the Press titles. But circulation never really took off; it folded in 1985 under the weight of too much debt.

The Scardinos were to survive their disappointment, and more. Marjorie, 67, was later to occupy top jobs at The Economist before taking over as CEO of Pearson, the publishing group that includes the Financial Times, where she remained until 2012. Today she has British citizenship and is Dame Marjorie. She is on the board of directors of Twitter. More importantly, she is the leading contender to replace Chris Patten at the head of the BBC Trust.

But earlier in her career, Marjorie and her husband were vilified and one woman told her that she hoped that her children would one day be kidnapped. The chain of events started in February, 1980 when a young man went missing. He was George Mercer IV, the son of George Mercer III, one of the most prominent members of society who was rich and descended from pioneers who arrived in the 18th century. The missing man was Savannah aristocracy. But Albert and Marjorie – he the editor of the Gazette, she the publisher – learnt that Mercer, missing since 29 January, had in fact been kidnapped.

The 11 February 1980 article The 11 February 1980 article FBI agents were all over town asking questions, yet the story hadn’t come out. Because the Mercers didn’t want it to. Families of that ilk didn’t wash their laundry in public even in extremis. More importantly, they were concerned that any publicity would put the investigation – and their son – in unnecessary peril. But the Scardinos, struggling to boost readership, had an irresistible scoop. Albert wrote the article himself and then phoned Mercer Sr to warn him of his intention to publish. It appeared on the front page of the Gazette on 11 February 1980. Under the headline, “Missing, or Kidnapped?” it said the young man was being held for ransom and even named the suspect, Michael Harper.

Much of what followed might have been forgotten but for a long account written by the veteran journalist and author Calvin Trillin and filed early the following year to The New Yorker, where he still works, and later included in a book of his collected dispatches. Called Among Friends, it vividly details the anger that article provoked.

Scores of readers cancelled their subscriptions, Albert and Marjorie were ostracised by local society. When the county later reversed its decision to place all its legal notices in the Gazette, Albert was sure it was in retribution. On one occasion, according to Trillin, an aunt of the young man telephoned Marjorie to vent her anger, suggesting before hanging up that she hoped the Scardino children would one day be kidnapped.

The Scardinos did not conceal the turmoil they had unleashed, publishing selected letters from appalled of Savannah. They appeared over several weeks, even as the hunt for the missing man continued. Indeed, it would be weeks before the full breadth of the tragedy would unfold. In the last week of that April, the body of George Mercer, 22, was found in a shallow grave in woods on the outskirts of the city.

“To the Editor,” said one. “I am asking that you cancel my subscription to the Georgia Gazette. After last week’s article, ‘Missing, or Kidnapped’, I no longer care to be part of a newspaper that preys on the suffering of others. Also things ‘quoted’ could jeopardise actions of both FBI or Police.” Signed, Will T Quayle. Wrote Bill Chisholm: “The type of journalism you are placing in the Georgia Gazette is only good for the trashcan”.

Tom Coffey, now 91 and retired, was the editor of the Press titles at the time. Talking to The Independent last week, he at first seemed almost rueful about what happened. “They beat us to the punch on that story,” he said. He admitted he had also known about the kidnapping suspicions and had opted to take the opposite course. He played by Savannah’s rules. “They put pressure on all of us and asked us to hold off and we did,” he recalled. “And they didn’t.” But the retired editor knows in his mind who did the right thing and who didn’t.

“I think they [the Gazette] should have done what the rest of us did. The family had asked us and that was it,” Mr Coffey went on, before turning almost scornful about his one-time competitor. “I don’t know what he was thinking,” he said of Albert. “He was a smart-ass rich boy. And he was gonna win a Pulitzer prize – and he did!”

It isn’t just Mr Coffey who still harbours opprobrium. It is the family of the victim also. His father died in 1982. But when this reporter attempted to reach two surviving sisters of the victim, a woman answered a Savannah number. She was Elizabeth Gilbert, 86, and she immediately identified herself as his mother, presumably remarried. Even today, all these years later, she struggled to speak about what happened to her son and especially the behaviour of the Gazette. But then she couldn’t contain herself.

“I will say one thing,” she said. “When Marjorie thought it was the right thing to do, it wasn’t the right thing to do because it would be detrimental to the search.”

Marjorie told The Independent via her husband that she believes an ethical publisher speaks with her editor frequently but never to the outside world about the editor’s work, a policy she adopted at the Georgia Gazette and followed at The Economist, the Financial Times and Penguin.

Maybe the Scardinos impeded the investigation, maybe they didn’t. “There was never any way to establish that was the case,” one person who was close to the investigation told The Independent, while asking that their name not be used. Nor did the investigators know of the pressure that was being put on the papers to refrain from publishing. “We weren’t aware of it at the time. We were just focusing on the investigation.”

The missing man, George Mercer The missing man, George Mercer Yet, two things stand out. By identifying the suspect – a young man called Michael Harper who had met George Mercer Jnr at a rugby match – the Scardinos had surely risked giving him notice to flee. And he did, on the very day of the article’s publication. It was only by chance that the police stopped the van he had hitched a ride in just south of Atlanta for speeding. Harper gave a false name and had a gun under his seat. He was arrested. Harper was later to admit to attempting to extort $40,000 (£24,000) from George Mercer Snr through ransom. He claimed, however, that the victim had been in on the conspiracy. Allegedly, they needed the money to cover a debt from a marijuana deal that had gone wrong. He denied killing anyone but was convicted of first degree murder and he lost on appeal. He was sentenced to life without parole after a prosecution request for the death penalty failed.

The second thing that stands out is that Mercer died. At Harper’s trial, a medical examiner testified it was probably on 29 January, before the article appeared. The date dial on his watch had stopped at the number 29. But under cross-examination, he said it was possible he died on 29 February but “not quite as possible as 29 January”.

No one will ever draw a clear line between the article and George Mercer’s death. But if the damage to the Gazette was already done, the Scardinos preferred to think it was for different reasons. “The real improper thing,” Albert is quoted as saying some time later by Trillin, “was not that we endangered his life but that an upstanding, powerful, rich member of the community asked us to do something and we ignored his request.”

Recalling the events, he told The Independent: “If we wanted to please the powerful we would seek jobs as courtiers. At our newspaper, we had only two questions to ask when deciding whether to publish. Is it true, and is it of public importance? If the answer to both was yes, we published, whatever the consequences to ourselves.

“The Mercer case wasn’t our first experience of social opprobrium and not even the strongest.”

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