Magazine article The Spectator

Can the Guardian Be a Newspaper Both of the Left and of the Establishment?

Magazine article The Spectator

Can the Guardian Be a Newspaper Both of the Left and of the Establishment?

Article excerpt

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. …

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