MEDIA: Can Hutton rediscover the dignity of the Observer?

Much is expected of Will Hutton, the new editor of the Observer. Something very strange has happened in the last three years at the once great liberal broadsheet. When the Guardian Media Group took over the ailing Sunday from Lonrho it seemed like a marriage made in heaven. Here was a civilised national newspaper group ideally placed to nurse the patient back to life - after years of being a rich man’s indulgence - because it was in sympathy with its core values.

Much is expected of Will Hutton, the new editor of the Observer.

Something very strange has happened in the last three years at the once

great liberal broadsheet. When the Guardian Media Group took over the

ailing Sunday from Lonrho it seemed like a marriage made in heaven. Here

was a civilised national newspaper group ideally placed to nurse the

patient back to life - after years of being a rich man’s indulgence -

because it was in sympathy with its core values.



But in retrospect the deal had a sad whiff of trophy journalism about

it, and the Observer’s fortunes continued to decline, despite conjuring

up some fine scoops. The venerable 205-year-old title had been purchased

defensively, for the worst of reasons, to prevent the Independent on

Sunday pushing through a merger, so taking pressure off the arch-rival

daily Independent’s finances. No one seemed to know how to fix it. The

business plans were vague.



As the Observer’s losses continued, the Guardian’s staff increasingly

viewed it as a cash-draining interloper. Twice the new owner put in

editors it swiftly regretted. Jonathan Fenby, former deputy editor of

the Guardian, agonised indecisively for two lost years. Andrew Jaspan

had the technical skills to oversee a revamp, but was clearly unable to

lead a revival. I visited the Observer under his editorship and it was

like entering a civil war zone. So much energy went into factional in-

fighting you wondered how the paper came out.



So, will it be third time lucky? Hutton, who arrived at the Guardian via

the BBC represents a distinct change in tack. Credited with inventing

the phrase ‘stakeholder economy’, his regular columns have developed a

liberal critique of unbridled free market Thatcherite values. He can

seem terribly vague when pressed for details in open debate, but at

least he has ideas, stands for something, and has struck a chord with a

thinking public. He is free to impress his personality and views on the

paper. He will be a loss to the Guardian.



We are actually witnessing an interesting throwback to the William Rees-

Mogg style of editing, when editors were supposed to be thinkers,

possessed of intellectual quality, leaving decisions about the size of

type used in headlines to a raft of faceless professionals. The other

good thing about the appointment is that it clears the air.



The Guardian Media Group and the Scott Trust band of worthies who

control the shares, have rightly rejected temptation and are not giving

up on the paper. There are misguided souls who think that if Mohammed

al-Fayed raises his offer the Observer should be sold. But this would be

disreputable. If the paper can find new inspiration there are still

plenty of potential readers out here.



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