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.