Magazine article The Spectator

What Happens When a Broadsheet Editor Loses His Marbles

Magazine article The Spectator

What Happens When a Broadsheet Editor Loses His Marbles

Article excerpt

One of the casualties of the election campaign, now mercifully ending, has been the reputation of the Guardian as a serious newspaper. The problem goes back some time. The `cash for questions' story, it will be remembered, was originally published by the Sunday Times, before it was taken up by the Guardian's former editor, Peter Preston. The Sunday Times treated it like any other major story, to be pursued or forgotten entirely on its merits as news. But for Preston, stories such as these became an obsession, a substitute for political conviction, and a personal vendetta against certain MPs, notably the (then) Cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken. In order to 'get' Aitken, he slipped into the toils of Mohamed Fayed, the man at the centre of the corruption scandal.

The precise relationship of Preston and the Guardian to Fayed may never be known, but it was - and is - of such a nature that the paper, while pursuing with relentless ferocity the MPs whom Fayed is supposed to have paid, or bribed, or corrupted, felt unable to publish a word of criticism about the paymaster who was responsible for the scandal in the first place. This moral anomaly was compounded by the fact that Fayed has a record of deceit and lying in his acquisition of Harrods. It is typical of Preston's dealing with this bad man that Fayed led him into forging a letter from Aitken, together with the signature of a civil servant, on purloined writing-paper.

Preston's forgery, and his reprehensible attempt to laugh off the revelation that a senior member of his staff had taken money from the KGB, finally brought about his downfall. The comatose Scott Trust, which is supposed to look after the Guardian's morals, woke up to its responsibilities. It first pushed the wretched man upstairs, then off the bridge altogether. His successor, Alan Rusbridger, thus had the opportunity to kick the paper's habit of Fayed-dependency and start with a clean sheet. In particular, Rusbridger would have been wise to disengage from Aitken and settle out of court his impending libel action, which seems likely to cost the paper huge sums. Unfortunately, Rusbridger was brought up (if that is the term) as a gossip columnist, and suffers from the deformations professionelles of the trade: a taste for malice, a cavalier approach to the truth and a weakness for pursuing vendettas. He not only decided to continue the Aitken action to the end but fought an even more savage litigational battle with another MP whom Fayed had fingered, Neil Hamilton.

For a time Rusbridger's tactics appeared to have brought results, since Hamilton ran into technical legal difficulties and out of cash, and was forced to abandon his suit. But it was at this point that Rusbridger lost his marbles. Intoxicated with forensic firewater and the exuberance of his own righteousness, and feeling free from all legal restraints now that Hamilton was penniless, he launched into a front-page characterassassination of the unfortunate man (splash headline: 'A Liar and a Cheat') which was wholly disproportionate to his offences, even had they been proven, and which was the clearest example of the abuse of press power in living memory. Not content with that, Rusbridger, to bolster his case against Hamilton, which is far less solid than he likes to persuade himself, published a partial and tendentious selection of evidence from the still-embargoed Downey report, in clear breach of his paper's undertaking and in defiance of parliament. …

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