Politics claim a victim at The Observer
A change of editor may mean significant changes at The Guardian’s sister paper
THE END-of-year departure of Roger Alton as editor of The Observer would seem remarkable to most outsiders. After all, Alton has presided over one of the few recent success stories in British publishing, increasing the circulation of the nation’s oldest Sunday newspaper at a time when sales are under pressure from new media.
In his near decade in charge, Alton, a Guardian Media Group (GMG) insider, has managed to keep ahead by producing a newspaper which always surprises.
Recently it adapted to the new Berliner format with greater panache than its sister paper, The Guardian. This in itself may have been a cause for friction between the two publications. But of more long-term significance has been the willingness of The Observer to adopt a maverick position on issues of the day, including the Middle East.
One of the bravest decisions in The Observer’s long history was when owner-editor David Astor decided in 1957 to lead a campaign against the FrancoBritish-Israel invasion of Suez. The immediate impact was loss of circulation and an advertising boycott — neither of which proved long-lasting.
In contrast, The Observer under Alton broke ranks with The Guardian over the Iraq war in 2003, offering its support to the Anglo-American invasion. It was partly influenced by the paper’s abhorrence of Saddam Hussein, who had the blood of Observer writer Farzad Bazoft on his hands. This position put it at odds with other papers on the left which saw the Iraqi invasion as the work of Washington’s pro-Israel neo-conservatives.
The willingness of the Obs to publish columns from journalists who have made the journey from the liberal left to the mainstream also contributed to the rift with The Guardian.
The two writers who most exemplify The Observer’s independence from the mother ship are Nick Cohen and Andrew Anthony. Cohen, a recipient of anti-Zionist emails despite coming from a family which has not been Jewish for a couple of generations, has taken up the cudgels against the pin-up boys of the left. Among other targets, he has attacked the London Mayor for embracing the ideas of Yusuf al-Qaradawi despite the theologian’s support for “wife-beating and the killing of Israeli children”.
In his new book, Fallout: How a Guilty Liberal Lost his Innocence, Anthony takes on the liberal-left for its attacks on those who dare criticise multiculturalism or befriend America. “Accusations of racism are instantly bandied about as if anyone who wanted to open a debate was by definition a Nazi,” Anthony wrote recently. He notes the lame liberal response to The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons.
The added value of Alton’s Observer is that it accommodates a range of voices. The views of Nick Cohen, Andrew Anthony and former JC editor Ned Temko, the paper’s chief political correspondent, are offset by liberal voices such as Will Hutton, who has used his column to criticise Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. This cacophony of views is what has made The Observer such a fascinating journal — one willing to divorce itself from the chains of history in the shape of its anti-Suez stance.
It would be nice to think that its new editor, John Mulholland, a highly competent journalist, will continue this tradition when he takes over in early 2008. But the likelihood is that he will be less willing to rock the GMG boat than Alton. Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail