Donald Trelford: After 218 years, will The Observer fall victim to a historic pledge?

Monday 10 August 2009 00:00 BST

When Lonrho sold The Observer to the Guardian Media Group in 1993, it was touch and go whether they would sell it to this newspaper instead.

The rival bids were comparable financially. The difference was that in one, The Observer would remain a separate title, but in the other it would have been merged (submerged, in the view of The Observer's journalists) into the Independent on Sunday, which had been launched three years before.

I could understand the journalists's argument, especially since a merger was bound to result in job losses, but I could also see that to join the two compatible papers would remove one player from the crowded Sunday quality market and create a strong competitor to The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph. I was glad that it wasn't my call. In the event Tiny Rowland, Lonrho's chief executive, paid heed to the journalists' plea that they be entrusted to The Guardian's care.

These recollections are prompted by the anger expressed last week by Observer journalists at the prospect that their paper might now be closed to help their owners, in the words of GMG's chief executive, Carolyn McCall, "fulfil our core purpose – securing the long-term future of The Guardian". Since this was in an internal memo responding to leaked stories about the threat to The Observer, the Sunday paper's journalists found it chilling that there was no mention of a long or even short-term future for them.

Although GMG said they were at the start of a three-month review of all the group's "structures, publishing strategy and titles", and that no decisions had been made, the accidental discovery of a dummy of a mid-week Observer in magazine format has convinced the journalists that closure of the Sunday paper is being seriously considered. All this follows news of GMG's annual loss of £90m (£36.8m from its national newspapers).

What annoys the Observer journalists is that a large part of these losses comes from massive investment by The Guardian in online services that bring little revenue at present and may never show an adequate return. Only niche publishers like the Financial Times are so far able to charge for editorial content, though Rupert Murdoch intends to start charging for the online material of his papers next year (whether readers will pay for it remains to be seen). One senior Observer figure told me: "It's surreal. There are now an amazing number of journalists, about 850, serving the Guardian's online industry, with little or nothing to show for it. This is not what we signed up for, or what The Guardian promised, back in 1993. They are engaged in a wild gamble on the future and it looks as though they are ready to sacrifice The Observer to pay for it, even though it may never work."

It may be some comfort to Observer journalists - or not - to know that their paper has been under threat of closure for as long I can remember, and yet has always survived. When I was appointed editor in 1975, the chairman, Lord Goodman, said to me: "I can't guarantee that the paper will last another six months." This was no surprise, for the company had just emerged from a damaging redundancy battle with the print unions. In previous years, while I was David Astor's deputy, I had trailed along with him and Goodman as they carried a begging bowl to various potential donors, including the Labour government and Mirror Group. The paper was finally saved by Goodman's friends in the commercial property market.

In later crises I was approached with offers to buy The Observer from, among others, the King of Saudi Arabia (via Woodrow Wyatt), President Gaddafi of Libya (via our Middle East correspondent), the Aga Khan, Sir James Goldsmith, Robert Maxwell, Olga Deterding, the eccentric Shell heiress, Sally Aw Sian, who made her fortune from Tiger Balm in Singapore (this came via a former MI6 agent I first met in Africa), as well as more orthodox candidates such as Murdoch and Associated Newspapers, not to mention eventual owners like Atlantic Richfield, the oil company, and Lonrho.

It would be wrong to suppose that these periodic crises came about because the newspaper was a terminal basket case. In fact, it was selling well, won many awards, and turned in an occasional profit. Even now, when all Sundays are going through a hard time, it outsells The Guardian and provides a good deal more than a seventh of the advertising generated by the two papers. The problem in those days was that it was a stand-alone Sunday paper with no daily partner to share the costs. It was paying its staff a week's salary and covering all office costs out of a single day's revenue. For much of that time, too, the paper owned printing presses which lay idle for six days out of seven.

That was why I thoroughly welcomed the link with a daily in 1993, even though it inevitably brought my own departure after 27 years. It saddens me that such bad feeling seems to have developed between the two papers. It was there at the start. I remember Alan Watkins, the political columnist, saying to me after Guardian executives had addressed The Observer's staff: "They're like a conquering army – I'm off." And off he duly went to The Independent on Sunday.

At the time I suggested that Alan Rusbridger, then deputy editor at The Guardian, should edit The Observer until such time as he took over from Peter Preston at the daily paper (which he did two years later). He had previously worked at The Observer as our TV critic. Had that happened, Rusbridger might have a better understanding of The Observer and of how the two papers should inter-relate. A former colleague told me: "Rusbridger doesn't seem to 'get' The Observer. He regards it as an imperfect Guardian that needs knocking into shape."

The fact that there have been five editors in the 16 years since the takeover suggests some confusion over strategy (three editors – J L Garvin, Astor and myself – covered 87 years of the 20th century). One gets the impression that each recent editor has felt a need to assert his autonomy against real or imagined pressures from The Guardian. But no Observer editor can be expected to sit idly by while his staff are herded into an aggressive corporate online strategy that puts his own paper at risk. Is this why Roger Alton had to move on?

Although the two papers come from roughly the same place politically and in their general social attitudes, and share a concern for good writing, there are important differences. The Observer has traditionally been less dogmatic, less committed to any political party, more maverick, even quixotic, less predictable – as in its support for the Iraq invasion. These differences should be respected. Last week's loudly expressed public dismay at the threat to The Observer should be a warning to The Guardian of the obloquy it would face – and the permanent stain on its liberal reputation – if, after 218 years, it were to remove the world's oldest Sunday paper from our national conversation.

The Scott Trust's holy writ – its Clause 4 if you like – is its commitment to protect The Guardian "in perpetuity." That seems to mean that, in the last resort, The Observer would have to be sacrificed in the event of a conflict between the two. That never came up in 1993. And one can hardly believe that C P Scott, who would have known and admired Garvin's Observer at the time the Trust was created in the 1930s, ever intended that it would be used as an excuse to destroy a much-loved and respected newspaper in the interests of an unknown and unknowable digital future. Maybe The Guardian should note that it was only by getting rid of Clause 4 that Labour began to prosper.

Donald Trelford edited The Observer from 1975-93, and is Emeritus Professor in journalism studies at Sheffield University

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