Guardian group finally takes its Manchester cash cow to market

Has GMG broken the spirit of the Scott Trust by selling its regional papers?

Matthew Bell
Sunday 14 February 2010 01:00

When Michael Frayn joined the Manchester Guardian as a reporter in 1957, he found a lunching partner in Harold Evans, then working his way up the ranks of The Manchester Evening News.

The two newspapers occupied an imposing redbrick building in Cross Street, sharing presses, a canteen, and the benevolent ownership of the Scott Trust. Frayn would go on to become one of the greatest playwrights of his generation, Evans the legendary editor of The Sunday Times, but their newspapers cannot boast such parallel paths.

This divergence was completed on Tuesday when The Guardian sold the MEN in a deal which sees Trinity Mirror acquire it and 22 other papers for a cash value of only £7.4m. The sell-off – described by one analyst as "the sale of the decade" – is part of a drive to stem losses at Guardian Media Group running at £100,000 a day, but it has disappointed journalists, politicians and councillors, who believe The Guardian has betrayed its roots and made an unprincipled withdrawal from the regional press.

"Most of us recognise that the printed media is going through a difficult time," says Tony Lloyd, the Labour MP for Manchester Central, "But this is another retreat from The Guardian's claim of social responsibility."

There is even the suggestion that the deal is in contravention of the original terms of the Scott Trust. When the trust was founded in 1936, four years after the death of C P Scott, The Guardian's spiritual father, the deeds contained the titles of both The Guardian and the MEN. For years, the company traded under both names. The precise wording of the original trust remains unknown to outsiders and these documents have never been made public.

In 1992, shortly before The Guardian acquired The Observer, the terms of the trust were revised and re-written by Liz Forgan, now the chairman of the trust. It was then that its central objective was made explicit, namely, "To secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity". If the trust previously existed to protect both papers, its purpose was now solely the preservation of the national.

Chris Wade, the director of communications at Guardian Media Group, says the point is academic: "Regardless of the technicality of the papers, the spirit of the trust was never in doubt. It has always been clearly understood, certainly by the Scott family, that the trust exists to preserve The Guardian."

Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of Guardian Media Group, echoes Wade: "No one in the trust was ever under any confusion". Asked why the Scott Trust's deeds have never been made public, she said: "They are private documents because it is a private trust."

The sale is consistent with a long-standing policy of using the paper as a cash-cow to prop up the loss-making Guardian. "The Guardian was heavily subsidised by the MEN in my day," recalls Frayn, now 74, "this transaction is purely financial."

The MEN was founded in 1868 and soon after bought by John Edward Taylor, founder of The Manchester Guardian. The papers parted company in 1907 but when the MEN was bought again by John, son of C P Scott, in 1924, it was highly profitable, and subsidised The Guardian for several decades. For example, in the financial year 1970-71, The Guardian's 150th anniversary, it lost £1.2m while the MEN made profits of £1.4m.

For Judy Gordon, the National Union of Journalists' mother of chapel at the MEN, the sale shows The Guardian management's disregard for the interests of its regional employees. "We feel betrayed," she says, "The Guardian has bled us dry for years and has now dumped us."

It is an accusation McCall does little to deny: "It was clear all the way along that the MEN was about the money and The Guardian was about the journalism. The Scott family bought it because it was a merchant's paper. It made money."

After cuts and redundancies at the MEN, which has a circulation of 90,000, editorial is now a tight operation. It is understood Trinity Mirror plans initially to keep the paper separate from its network of more than 260 titles. But there are plans to move staff out of central Manchester when the lease on the current building expires later this year, possibly to Trinity Mirror's printing plant at Oldham. Such a move may meet with resistance from Manchester City Council, which is anxious for the paper to remain in the centre. "Where they locate themselves is a matter for them but we will be discussing their plans with them." says a spokesman for the council, "It's an important regional voice."

Lloyd believes leaving the city would be a mistake. "I know there is this idea that you can be anywhere these days, but for a local paper, it is important to be at the heart of the community."

Trinity Mirror refused to discuss its plans, but it is known to have little patience for losses. The union is optimistic, though: "We're not overly worried," says Gordon. "We feel like a child finally being taken away from its feckless parents."

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