Rowland's story angers staff at 'Observer': Journalists clash with editor over decision to publish owner's autobiographical article

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JOURNALISTS on the Observer newspaper clashed angrily with their editor, Donald Trelford, yesterday, over his decision to publish a 7,000-word autobiographical article by the paper's owner, Tiny Rowland, Chief Executive of the Lonhro empire.

The row, with journalists accusing their editor of allowing Mr Rowland to abuse the paper's editorial independence, comes on the eve of its transfer into the hands of the Guardian and Manchester Evening News group. It offers an ironic epitaph to Mr Rowland's controversial 12-year ownership of the paper.

The two-page article, to be published tomorrow, follows newspaper serialisation of a highly-critical biography of Mr Rowland by the journalist Tom Bower. It comes three days before a BBC1 Inside Story documentary based on Mr Bower's investigations into Mr Rowland's empire and his business dealings.

Mr Trelford, who has denied that Mr Rowland has exercised editorial interference since buying the title in 1981, has turned a deaf ear to complaints from his journalists.

'Contracts may have been exchanged on the sale,' one journalist said. 'But that doesn't stop the present owner from digging up the rose beds or ripping down the curtains before the new people move in.'

Mr Trelford spent yesterday endeavouring to persuade staff that the article was a genuinely good story. Unimpressed, a number of journalists on the paper, which was sold for pounds 27m last month, demanded that Mr Trelford publish a letter in tomorrow's edition dissociating them from the publication of the article, which is illustrated with photographs from Mr Rowland's private collection.

Mr Trelford is refusing to publish the letter, saying that a rival group of staff of greater size had argued that it would make the paper look foolish.

He said that the publication of the article was not editorial interference by Mr Rowland because 'he brought no pressure to bear'. He would not have accepted the article if it had not been what he wanted.

'Any editor would have jumped at the chance to publish this piece because it is the inside story, for the first time, of one of the most intriguing and legendary people of our time.'

There was no comparison with the way the late Robert Maxwell used the Daily Mirror to publish self-serving articles. 'Mr Rowland wanted to publish it in the Observer as a way of saying good-bye to a paper he loves,' Mr Trelford said.

Mr Bower's book, Tiny Rowland: A Rebel Tycoon, is to be published later this month. Mr Rowland's lawyers have been inundating the author with letters demanding sight of the manuscript and of a BBC documentary film to be shown next week.

Mr Bower said last night that Mr Rowland was 'getting his retaliation in first' by having his own newspaper carry the article.

He added: 'I think he is paranoid because I have talked to people in Europe, Africa and America about him and he doesn't know what I have written.'