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

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