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Member Name: davidbuttery
Date: 08/07/02, updated on 08/07/02 (166 review reads)
Advantages: Editorial independence, The new Saturday Review pullout, I agree with (most of) its politcs! :-)
Disadvantages: The new Editor pullout, Metropolitan bias, Sports coverage is patchy
The Guardian is interesting in that it is not controlled by one of the multinational media empires, but by the Guardian Media Group's Scott Trust, a body which does not have shareholders to pander to, and so is able to take decisions that a plc would have serious difficulties in accepting. The most famous example of this is the injunction given to a new editor of the Guardian: merely to keep it going along "the same lines and in the same spirit as heretofore".
This sort of guarantee of editorial independence is all very well in principle, but has it ever been put into practice? Yes. Most famously in 1956, when the Guardian's brave (and, ultimately, correct) refusal to support Anthony Eden's disastrous Suez adventure lost it a great number of readers, especially in its Manchester heartland. But also in 1974, when the paper lost a lot of advertising from companies with interests in South Africa after its exposure of the appalling conditions in which some black labourers were treated there.
Of course, it's fair to say that a person of extreme-right views would be highly unlikely to be appointed in the first place, so the freedom is not total. But it's a closer approach than on any other British newspaper. The Guardian has been lucky in that its two most recent editors, Peter Preston and the current incumbent Alan Rusbridger, have understood the special position of the paper and - while tinkering at
the edges from time to time, not always with unmitigated success - have not attempted to drag it too far from its core principles. (Though it was perhaps taking egalitarianism too far when, in the early 1960s, the Guardian ran a front page advert for the Daily Telegraph - "the paper you can trust"!)
The paper's general appearance has remained pretty much the same since 1988, when the now-famous mixed-typeface masthead was unveiled - it's quite an eye-opener to go back to issues from before the redesign and find just how stodgy and badly set out the Guardian was in those days. Special sections have come and gone, and the sport has been moved to the back page - one of the last newspapers to succumb to this - but the most significant change has been the introduction in 1992 of the G2 tabloid section, an innovation which has been copied by many of the paper's rivals.
One area in which the Guardian has *not* copied its rivals, however, is in the matter of price. The tone here was set in 1993-94, at the time of the first major price war in the sector, which was set off when the Times reduced its cover price markedly from 45p to 30p and then 20p, selling on some occasions for as little as ten pence. The Telegraph and the Indpendent decided that they had no option but to follow suit, so incurring big losses, but the Guardian stayed firm and sold at full price throughout, as it continues to do. Its circulation of around 400,000 has stayed fairly steady for some years now, and it's plain that the policy of investing in journalism rather than price cuts has paid off. (The Guardian was, I believe, the only national newspaper that never derecognised the NUJ.)
The Guardian's news section is perhaps not the most exciting, but that is at least in part a deliberate policy on the part of the paper - clarity is considered more important than tabloid-style screaming for attention. The layout of stories is generally good, with a
clean and modern look that still satisfies 14 years after the last full-scale overhaul. The decent-quality paper on which the Guardian is printed contributes to this pleasant, airy feel - the Times, in particular, is printed on horribly thin and crackly stuff that reminds one of the lower class of toilet paper.
One complaint that does come up time and again is that the Guardian is too obsessed with London and the metropolitan chattering classes. There's some merit in this complaint - certainly, some writers will throw in references to "Brick Lane" and "the Edgware Road", blithely assuming that, well, surely *everyone* knows where they are? And these same writers will go to some lengths to explain that Lancashire County Council isn't based in Lancaster. (It's in Preston.) These double standards do grate, but there does seem to have been a small but noticeable improvement of late, and I hope it continues.
The Comment and Analysis section is the heart of the Guardian. Here is where you will find the writers who make the paper such a talking point from both pro and anti camps. Hugo Young is one of the best political commentators around, and a fine antidote to the strident screeching of certain other writers in this field. Gary Younge can come across as a little bit angry in tone on occasion, but sometimes that is what is needed to shake people out of their complacency. Matthew Engel is readable on just about anything. John Sutherland is a new(ish) and coherent voice against the wilder excesses of US policy. And Roy Hattersley has proved that it is possible to remain committed to the Labour Party without being either a groupie for "the Project" or a millitant dinosaur.
Perhaps the quintessential Guardian columnist, though, in that the very mention of her name makes conservative commentators' blood boil, is Polly Toynbee. As woule be expected from a member of the family that produced the renowned his
torian Arnold Toynbee (she is his granddaughter), she writes with a direct and straightforward style, and has no time for havering and fudge. She stands up for downtrodden and underpaid social workers - in itself guaranteed to bring flecks of foam to the mouth of Richard Littlejohn and his ilk; she supports higher taxes on the rich; she attacks the selfishness of many motorists who see their right to drive as outweighing the collective right to a decent environment. She can occasionally come across as a bit of a whinger, but there's usually a good reason for her moan.
The leaders are fairly conventional in their setup - there's usually a longish first leader on the main matter in the news; a shorter second one dealing with something that, though not the top story, is close to the Guardian's heart; and a short, humorous third leader - a sort of "and finally..." of the printed page. Very occasionally, usually after a world-shaking event such as 11/9, the whole leader column is given over to one issue to be discussed in depth. The letters page is a very mixed one, continuing much as it has for as long as I can remember, though it's a shame that the famous "Miscellany at large" heading has gone by the board. And here, too, you will find a peaceful haven from the world's ills in the form of the long-running Country Diary. (No Edwardian Ladies, though!)
Perhaps the most interesting feature on the Comment and Analysis pages, though, is the increasingly famous "Corrections and Clarifications" spot, which has alreasy been copied by most other papers and an increasing number of other publications. Here, "significant" errors are acknowledged - it's always intriguing to see what is and is not considered "significant"; as a rule, errors of fact go here, with a specific apology (better a red face now than a libel write later), and misspelt names are also considered a notifiable offence. It
's not all serious, though - "homophone corner" is by now almost a regular column in itself, as the Grauniad's world-famous propensity for misprints is brought into the age of the spellchecker - "principle" for "principal" having returned for quite a few encores already....
This brings me to the paper's most important recent introduction, the Readers' Editor, Ian Mayes. He acts as a sort of internal ombudsman, investigating whether complaints about the conduct of journalists and what they write are justified, and - in his weekly "Open Door" column, which has become a must-read - giving guidance to readers on various aspects of the Guardian's setup, and commenting on any particularly controversial issues that seem relevant. Mayes cannot be sacked other than by a direct resolution of the Scott Trust itself, and indeed his contract requires him to maintain his independence from the paper's directly employed staff. The "Open Door" columns are not subject to editorial control, which has allowed Mayes to become highly trusted both within and without the paper itself. (The columns are archived on the Guardian's website, www.guardian.co.uk, and are well worth reading in some detail.)
City news is something I am simply not qualified to write in great detail about, but to my inexpert eye it sometimes seems as though the blood-red capitalism of much of the financial sector fits uneasily with the Guardian's social democratic world-view, leading to a lack of commitment in some of these pages. It's not that the writers are actively trying to undermine global capitalism, but it's all a bit lacklustre.
So, on to sport. This is usually considered a tabloid preserve, but broadsheet coverage has expanded hugely from the days when the Telegraph was considered daring for carrying proper cricket scoreboards. Actually, cricket is not a sport the Guardian excels in covering:
my own county (Worcestershire) are frequently marginalised in favour of a long report on a far more boring match involving a team nearer London - Surrey especially. Football news is all over the place - the Guardian just doesn't know how to do a soccer scoop, and should stop trying, but some of the more analytical pieces are very good indeed. It's a great shame that David Lacey is to retire this year, as he's a strong contender for the best football writer in British newspapers. As for the rest, tennis gets wide coverage during Wimbledon but not too much at other times, golf stories seem even more skewed towards hero-worship of Tiger Woods than is the norm, and motorsport reporting is - as it is in most of the Guardian's competitors - woefully inadequate. Athletics does much better than elsewhere, though, thanks to the skill and verve of the excellent John Rawlings (also to be heard on BBC Radio 5 Live), who also covers boxing.
The tabloid-sized G2 section is where the paper shovels everything it can't think of a place for. Maybe slightly unfair as an analysis, but not all that inaccurate. Here excruciatingly boring four-page waffles about the future of some obscure fashion designer rub shoulders with don't-miss columns by tbe likes of Marcel Berlins, whose what-used-to-be-called-Writ-Large-and-still-should -be column is far and away the best legal diary spot in any paper. Steve Bell's legendarily vicious "If..." cartoons can also be found here (unless he is "away", which seems to be the case far too often), as can Nancy Banks-Smith's exceptional TV reviews.
In addition, each day brings at least one extra section. Monday's Media tabloid has about 8 pages of editorial and 108 pages of job adverts - this is apparently *the* paper for media types. Tuesday brings Education (only once, Mr Blair), but as my family is full of teachers the Times Educational Supplement is much preferred. Wednesday prov
es that there is such a thing as Society, another pullout fattened with job ads. Thursday's Online technology supplement is a curious mix of trenchant comment and uninspired game reviews. And the Friday Review has, astoundingly enough, reviews, though it's pleasing to see a paper that thinks that pop and classical music has equal validity.
Saturday, as with most papers, sees a huge slew of supplements fall out of the Guardian. Apart from the tiny (so easy-to-lose) TV section, there's the Saturday Review, whose recent tabloidisation has greatly improved the paper - its 48 pages are now a very interesting read, and it's wonderful to see, at last, a dedicated Children's Books page with comment from top-notch writers such as Philip Pullman and Anne Fine. The Editor, though, a digest of what the media has been saying over the past week, has been wrecked - it used to be a full-colour A4 magazine, just right for a quick flick through. Now it's too big, the colour has gone (an unusual reversal in today's newspaper industry) and many of the better ideas (the comparison of film reviews from various sources, for example) have been diluted in power or removed altogether. This used to be my favourite part of the Saturday Guardian: now, I don't even bother to read it at all.
There's also the glossy magazine, which for me lost something of its attraction when Marcel Berlins stopped setting the questions for the quiz. His replacement is competent, but the verve and panache is no longer there. Of course, for many people the magazine is best known for a column at the other end of the thing - Julie Burchill is not, to many people's open despair, all that often away. Burchill is unique, and it's more or less impossible to describe her style briefly, except to say that about half the letters in the next week's edition tend to be savage attacks on what their authors see as Burchill's stupidity, arrogance, whining, righ
t-wingery, navel-gazing or pretty much anything else they can think of. Her recent op on why her abortions were no big deal provoked a huge postbag, but it's not going to change the way she writes.
Yes, the Guardian is a paper that supports left-of-centre politics. Yes, it is liberal on most social issues. Yes, it does have problems with globalisation. Yes, it is read by a lot of social workers. Yes, it is a place where people worry about how to make the world a better place. Yes, it is in favour of a more equitable society.