3 MAY 1997, Page 26


What happens when a broadsheet editor loses his marbles


0 ne 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 Pre- ston. The Sunday Times treated it like any other major story, to be pursued or forgot- ten entirely on its merits as news. But for Preston, stories such as these became an obsession, a substitute for political convic- tion, and a personal vendetta against cer- tain MPs, notably the (then) Cabinet minis- ter, 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 cor- rupted, 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 compound- ed by the fact that Fayed has a record of deceit and lying in his acquisition of Har- rods. It is typical of Preston's dealing with this bad man that Fayed led him into forg- ing 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 responsi- bilities. 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 deforma- tions 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 fire- water and the exuberance of his own righ- teousness, and feeling free from all legal restraints now that Hamilton was penniless, he launched into a front-page character- assassination 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 selec- tion of evidence from the still-embargoed Downey report, in clear breach of his paper's undertaking and in defiance of par- liament. He was able to risk doing this only because the Commons was being dissolved and was thus unable to hold him in con- tempt. But it is precisely the kind of shifty and irresponsible behaviour which per- suades the public that journalists are not to be trusted.

To prove himself right and his vendetta justified, Rusbridger then decided it was essential to prevent Hamilton standing in the election. He jumped at the idea of an `anti-sleaze' candidate in Hamilton's con- stituency. When such a candidate appeared, in the shape of the BBC's Martin Bell, the Guardian threw all discretion to the winds and noisily entered the fray. But of course Bell was not so much an anti- sleaze as a media candidate; indeed, the BBC had had Hamilton in its sights for some years, and had been expensively worsted by him in an earlier libel action. The Tatton Conservatives refused to bow to media triumphalism, however, and rese- lected him by a decisive majority. So Bell found himself standing on no other plat- form than the media's animus against Hamilton, and the Guardian, which should be reporting the election, became a parti- san and a participant, at least as far as Tat- ton was concerned. Rusbridger gave this marginal affray, of little more than gossip- column interest, more coverage than any other single aspect of the campaign, or than any of the serious issues it ought to have been putting to Guardian readers. More- over, many of the paper's contributors, tak- ing their cue from the editor, beat their own tin kettles in support of Bell, so that the impression of insensate bias has been intensified. 'Comment is free but facts are sacred'? Not in Rusbridger's gossip-column world they ain't. 'Comment is crass and facts are slanted' sounds more apt.

Time was when the Guardian was a gen- uinely independent newspaper of the Left. Both Labour and Liberal supporters regarded it as fair, sympathetic and accu- rate. The Liberals now look to the Indepen- dent. Labour finds the Guardian increasing- ly embarrassing, more particularly since its vendetta against Tony Blair, more gossip than serious comment to be sure, is second only to its campaign against Hamilton. But, as Blair is pleased to note, New Labour people, who will be predominant in the next parliament, tend to take the Times. What should be done about the Guardian and Rusbridger is unclear. The paper is ultimately controlled by the Scott Trust, most of whose members are nobodies or supine or both, and whose chairman is actually one of Rusbridger's employees and heavily involved in the paper's policies, or lack of them. He has already been responsi- ble for getting rid of three editors, one from the Guardian, two from the Observer, and may not relish having to purge a fourth. Or maybe his fellow-trustees will do what they should have done long ago, sack him and appoint instead a high-minded and authoritative outsider who can set about cleansing the paper's Augean stables. In the meantime, the new House of Commons will be taking a fresh look at our dreadful media as a whole, and taking steps to civilise it, thanks be to God.