John Lloyd has become a much lauded guru of serious journalism. A former member of a fascinating group called the British Irish Communist party, he is now a loyal Blairite, and edits the on the whole very good Financial Times Saturday magazine. He is also the author of an interesting recent book on the British media which for some reason escaped the notice of this column. One day we may put that right.
Mr Lloyd recently used the pages of his magazine to make an ex-cathedra pronouncement. This was that the Guardian is poised to become the new paper of the British establishment. His suggestion, which is certainly correct, is that the Times has voluntarily given up its position as the establishment newspaper. Mr Lloyd did not propose that his own newspaper, the Financial Times, was suited to take its place, and he is surely right about this too. The FT could have taken over the role for the asking several years ago, but has increasingly turned its attentions from this country, where its sales have plummeted, to international climes, where they have soared.
This was no casual benediction on Mr Lloyd’s part. He has correctly interpreted the Guardian’s ambitions. Nine or so months ago, some commentators were suggesting that the paper had fatally missed the boat by not going tabloid. The Times and more particularly the Independent were carrying all before them with their tabloid formats, and the Guardian was losing circulation. Eventually the paper announced that it would adopt a Le Monde-sized format — somewhere between a tabloid and a broadsheet — and would spend more than £50 million on installing new presses. There were again some sceptical voices, but my own view, though it may have pained some readers to hear it, was that the Guardian was playing a rather intelligent long game.
Notwithstanding the belief of some old leftists that the paper has become frivolous, it must be conceded that over the past ten years it has dumbed down less than its rivals. It may be maddening but it is usually serious in being so. By going tabloid, both the Independent and more especially the Times have speeded up their slide downmarket. It need not have been so. In Spain, the upmarket El Pais is a tabloid which manages to fit several stories on to a page. The Times and the Independent, because they use chunky headlines and large pictures, sometimes have only one or two stories on a page. This has the effect of promoting not very important and sometimes downright trivial stories to undue prominence. The Guardian intends to avoid this trap, and its new format — slightly more expansive than a tabloid — will help it to do so.
The change in shape is supposed to take place in January 2006, but there are rumours that it might happen as soon as this September. What is clear is that in the mind of the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, the transformation will have to do with much more than format. (I should mention that I have not spoken to Mr Rusbridger before writing this article.) There is much talk within the newspaper of making its news stories more objective and less viewy. The dictum of C.P. Scott, the most famous of all Guardian editors, has been dusted off: ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred.’ It is pointed out that Paul Johnson (no relation), the man put in charge of the new project, is a tough former news editor who places a higher premium on the importance of comment-free reporting than some of his more ideologically minded colleagues. Some even see evidence that in its reporting of Northern Ireland and the Middle East the Guardian is already becoming more even-handed where once it took sides. In this way, so it is argued, the evolution of the paper into a kind of British version of the New York Times (a newspaper Mr Rusbridger much admires) has already begun.
Still, there must be some doubt as to whether Mr Rusbridger will be able to re-position the newspaper as he might like. He himself is not a man of the Left; he simply happens to have edited a centre-left paper for some ten years. But there are senior executives on his staff — for example, Georgina Henry, a deputy editor, or Seamus Milne, the comment editor — who very decidedly are of the Left. To change the deep-seated culture of a paper is not an easy thing. It is not simply a matter of asking reporters to be objective. If the Guardian is to appeal to a wider spectrum of readers and to become the paper of the establishment, it will have to tone down or get rid of some of its Dave Sparts while importing a few old farts in the process. Whether Mr Rusbridger can bring about such a transformation — and whether he really wants too — must be a little doubtful.
Even if he could, there is a deeper question. What about the readers? The Guardian is the newspaper of teachers, lecturers, social workers, middling government employees. Its pages bulge with government job advertising on which it has a virtual (and indefensible) monopoly. Is it really feasible for it to continue to appeal to its traditional readers while stretching out its hand to members of the establishment — mandarins, lawyers, the higher clergy, senior businessmen and the like? John Lloyd argues in his piece that the establishment has moved to the Left, and he may be right about this. But has it moved so far? Can mandarins and judges happily sit in the same tent as bolshy university lecturers? It seems unlikely. The truth is that the Guardian has form as long as your arm as a left-wing paper, and it will be difficult, and possibly dangerous in view of the predilections of its core readers, to persuade people that it has changed.
I should at this stage declare an interest as someone hoping to launch a newspaper aimed at some of the readers whom Mr Rusbridger has his eye on. But there is quite a lot of meat on this bone, and I do not think my reservations arise from any competitive instincts. I am sure that the Guardian’s relaunch in its new format will be a tremendous success. I have no doubt that it will pick up new readers, and it may win back some defectors who have jumped ship to the Independent. It will be seen as an elegant and serious newspaper — but also as the left-wing one it has long been, not ideally suited to step into the empty shoes of the Times.
I also owe the Guardian an apology. Last week I complained that none of the so-called serious newspapers had published a leader following the statement by Hugh Orde, the chief constable of Northern Ireland, that the IRA was probably responsible for stealing £26.5 million from the Northern Bank in Belfast. In fact the Guardian did. For those who may have suspected the paper over the years of harbouring sympathies for Sinn Fein-IRA, the leader will have seemed cheeringly robust in its criticisms of the IRA. Perhaps it exemplified the more statesmanlike tone which some observers claim to have detected.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 22, 2005