Why drive out a successful and talented editor?

Last week, I suggested that personal jealousies played their part in the defenestration of Roger Alton, the editor of The Observer. Someone close to the action had suggested to me that Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, had engaged in a "land grab". Now, having read a letter which Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of Guardian Media Group, sent to this newspaper, I realise how silly and naïve I must have been.

Carolyn confirms that, when it comes to defending themselves, newspaper managements are no different than governments or multi-nationals. According to her, it is "childish" to imagine that jealousy had anything to do with Mr Alton's resignation. In a memorable phrase, she asserts that "the new arrangements will secure [The Observer's] digital future on a shared platform, with access to a larger journalistic resource through more efficient news-gathering".

One imagines how Carolyn might have defended Attila the Hun. "Contrary to childish reports of mass murder, rape and pillage, Attila has at all times striven to establish secure communities that are able to live in harmony with one another. Attila has personally taken charge of the ethics committee and is working tirelessly to achieve new guidelines covering the peaceful assimilation of Visigoths and Vandals."

I don't suggest that the partial incorporation of The Observer by The Guardian was solely, or even principally, motivated by jealousy. Carolyn presumably believes in the plan for a "shared platform" between the two newspapers and online operations. But I suspect it would have been possible to achieve most of these reforms while hanging on to Mr Alton. Or, to put it another way, what kind of newspaper group drives out a talented editor at the height of his powers?

Carolyn takes me to task for "misrepresenting" the sales figures of The Guardian and The Observer, and here she has half a point. I was pretty spot-on in suggesting that The Guardian has lost 5,000 or 10,000 copies a day since adopting the Berliner format. In September 2004 – a full year before it changed shape – The Guardian had a "headline" ABC circulation figure of 376,314. Last month, the equivalent figure was 367,546. I was over generous in suggesting that The Observer had put on nearly 100,000 copies. In September 2005, five months before it switched format, the paper averaged 438,365. Last month, the figure was 472,252. Surely even Carolyn can agree that The Guardian has not advanced since going Berliner, while The Observer's sales have risen sharply. This, as I suggested, may have inflamed jealousies.

By the way, wasn't it interesting that Carolyn should have written this letter rather than Alan Rusbridger, though he may have been holding her pen? I am still looking forward to reading his encomium of Roger Alton.


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