The Observer is a British Sunday newspaper. Currently part of the Guardian Media Group which also publishes The Guardian, it generally takes a liberal and somewhat left of centre stance on the issues of the day. Its current owners make much of the paper's "long-standing tradition of liberal politics and independent journalism", a highly dubious claim since for much of its history The Observer has been neither liberal nor independent.

The origins of the paper

The Observer is of course the oldest Sunday newspaper in the world, with its first issue appearing on Sunday 4th December 1791. It was founded by W.S. Bourne, "a young Irish man of literary ability" with a capital of one hundred pounds. In the very first issue Bourne proclaimed that his paper would be "Unbiased by Prejudice, Uninfluenced by Party", enlivened by "the spirit of enlightened Freedom, decent Toleration and universal Benevolence", and that its "whole object was Truth and the dissemination of every Species of Knowledge that may conduce to the Happiness of Society". Such claims were however commonplace, if not obligatory, in any launch of a British newspaper, and one would have to be particularly naive or working in marketing to take them at their face value.

However what was more to the point was that Bourne believed that "the establishment of a Sunday newspaper would obtain him a rapid fortune". As was so often to be the case such a view proved to be wildly optimistic and by 1794 Bourne was £1,600 in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. He tried to sell the newspaper to an anti-government group in London but they lacked either the will or the finance to proceed. Bourne was subsequently bailed out by his brother W.H. Bourne who took the opposite tack and tried to sell the newspaper to the government.

The government declined the offer, but did however agree to subsidise the paper, and the subsequent stream of regular payments from Home Office funds ensured that the paper took a robust line against the likes of such radicals as Tom Paine, Thomas Spence, Francis Burdett and Joseph Priestley. In 1807 the Bourne brothers took a step back and appointed Lewis Doxat as editor, and seven years later in 1814 sold the paper to William Innell Clement who also owned the Morning Chronicle, Bell's Life in London and the Englishman. Therefore something of an early nineteenth century press magnate, Clement retained the services of Doxat and also continued the paper's arrangement with the government which, if anything, deepened as the paper's star reporter, Vincent George Dowling became in effect a paid government agent reporting on the activities of the Spencean Philanthropists and appeared as a key prosecution witness in the trial that followed the Spa Fields Riot of 1816.

The Clement-Doxat years

It was however during the Clement-Doxat regime that The Observer pioneered the concept of illustrated journalism, beginning in 1818 with a portrait of Abraham Thornton who had just escaped hanging for the crime of murder after appealing to the wager of battle. It continued in the same vein with the Cato street conspiracy of 1820 when it published woodcut pictures of the stable and hayloft in Cato street where the conspirators had been captured, followed soon after by A Faithful Reproduction of the Interior of the House of Lords as prepared for the Trial of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Caroline. The Coronation number of 22nd July 1821 appeared complete with four engravings and sold 60,000 copies, although this record was overtaken by the paper's lavishly illustrated coverage of the Elstree Murder despite being believed by some "to have overstepped the mark of propriety".

Such technical innovations helped establish the commercial success of the paper, and also inspired a me-too competitor with the appearance of the New Observer in 1821 (which later became The Sunday Times). Despite such success the paper however retained its close relationship with the government and the Viscount Palmerston, himself a former leader writer for the paper, continued to subsidise it with cash diverted from Secret Service funds in return for the paper's support of his foreign policy.

William Innell Clement died in 1852; his heirs appear to have retained ownership of the paper until Lewis Doxat retired in 1857, at which time the paper was sold to Joseph Snowe who appointed himself editor. Snowe seems to have steered the paper in a more liberal direction; he supported the North during the American Civil War of 1861-1865, and by 1866 was arguing that "the time has come when the working classes must be effectively represented in the House of Commons". The paper however suffered a decline in circulation under Snowe and in 1870 he sold the paper to the businessman Julius Beer who appointed Edward Dicey as editor. Dicey succeeded in improving the arts coverage and raising the standard of foreign reporting and in reviving the fortunes of the paper. Julius Beer died in 1880 and the ownership passed to his son Frederick. It appears that Frederick had little interest in the newspaper; Dicey continued as editor until 1889, after which he was briefly succeeded by Henry Duff Traill, who was then succeeded in 1891 by Frederick's wife Rachel who decided to edit the paper herself. It was under Rachel Beer's control that the paper achieved one of its greatest coups when it published the admission by one Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy alias 'Count Esterhazy' that he had forged the letters that sent Captain Alfred Dreyfus to Devil's Island.

In 1893 she also acquired the Sunday Times and appointed herself editor of that paper as well, but although she has been described as a "remarkable woman", being the first ever woman to edit a British national newspaper (let alone two), Mrs Beer was not that particularly successful in business terms, as both her papers steadily lost circulation. She gave up editing both papers by 1904, (Austin Harrison took over at the Observer) a decision possibly inspired by her husband's descent into madness and subsequent death in 1905. By this time circulation of the Observer had plunged to 5,000 copies a week and when the executors of Frederick's estate sold the paper to Alfred Harmsworth, later the Viscount Northcliffe, who also owned The Daily Mail, he described the paper as "lying in the Fleet ditch".

The Garvin Years

Harmsworth initially retained Austin Harrison as editor but in 1908 replaced him with James Louis Garvin. Garvin, who turned out to be one of the great newspaper editors of the first half of the twentieth century, succeeded in increasing the circulation to 40,000 by 1909. But despite Garvin's success in reviving the paper's fortunes he began to have serious political disagreements with Harmsworth; in particular Garvin supported Tariff Reform whilst Harmsworth was more of a Free Trader. The crunch came in 1911 when Harmsworth became particularly incensed at a leader that Garvin had just published and sent him a telegram with the message "EITHER YOU GET OUT OR I DO!". Given three weeks to find a buyer, Garvin found William Waldorf Astor (later the 1st Viscount Astor) who paid £45,000, largely at the urging of his son.

Astor had earlier acquired the Pall Mall Gazette in 1892 and having handed over control to his son in 1911, the latter was anxious to acquire the services of Garvin to help revive that paper's fortunes. Somewhat ironically the Astors later concluded that even Garvin could not save the Gazette, and decided to get rid of it in 1915 whilst retaining the Observer. At the Observer Garvin introduced a new typeface, redesigned the layout and increased the coverage of the arts and books, theatre and music, and even employed a film critic in 1925; (being one CA Lejeune who was still there in 1960). Garvin's efforts resulted in a steady increase in circulation to 200,000 copies, whilst his post-war conception of the paper was largely responsible for establishing the format of the modern quality Sunday newspaper.

Politically speaking Garvin was an imperialist Tory who had earlier been a follower of Joseph Chamberlain and a champion of the Tariff Reform movement. Initially Garvin's views were in step with those of his proprietor, and both became associated with the so-called Cliveden Set, a group of like minded politicians, academics and journalists who sought a peaceful settlement with Germany. Garvin however took a rather different view of the emergence of the Nazi movement in Germany, and in the late 1930s emerged as a friend and supporter of Winston Churchill. The 2nd Viscount Astor, who had taken over from his father in 1919, began to complain of "Garvin's anti-German articles". The two disagreed in particular over the question as to whether Churchill should be both Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. The Viscount solved this problem by declining to renew Garvin's contract in 1942, and he left the paper after thirty-four years in charge.

The Astor years

The Viscount Astor placed the paper in the hands of his younger son David Astor, who initially appointed Ivor Brown as editor, and then from 1948 edited the paper himself. Under David Astor's influence the Observer hired a number of prominent left wingers such as George Orwell, Michael Foot, Sebastian Haffner, Jon Kimche, Donald Tyerman and Isaac Deutscher to write for the paper. The paper's move to the left didn't please everyone. In particular it didn't please David's mother Nancy Astor (who had after all been a Conservative MP) who complained bitterly about the change. It was largely to avoid a family squabble that the 2nd Viscount Astor decided to place the ownership of the paper inside a trust to guarantee its independence, further specifying that any profit must be used to improve the newspaper, promote good journalism or for charitable purposes. The trust deed also originally required that the paper be controlled by those who supported the Protestant religion, a rather strange stipulation for a liberal newspaper, since it prevented both Jews and Catholics from holding positions of authority at the paper.

Nevertheless it was during the 1950s and 1960s that the Observer entered what was regarded by many as its golden age. Astor fostered a new generation of journalists including such names as Anthony Sampson, Nora Beloff and Samuel Brittan, whilst Kenneth Tynan was the drama critic, Vita Sackville-West tackled gardening, and such notable intellectuals as Arthur Koestler and Philip Toynbee were called on to fill the review pages. The Observer soon came to pride itself on its coverage of international, particularly African affairs, and consistently followed an anti-imperialist line, opposed the Suez War and supported the emerging independence and nationalist movements in Britain's former colonial empire.

The trouble was that Astor was something of an idealistic amateur and whilst the paper attracted a considerable reputation as a beacon of the liberal left it never made much money and had to rely on support from the family trust to keep going. In particular it experienced difficulty in attracting advertisers to a paper which had attracted a reputation, as one account rather bluntly put it, of appealing only to "left wing nigger lovers and central European Jewish intellectuals".

Matters got worse when the Canadian Roy Thompson acquired The Sunday Times in 1959. Thompson was reasonably well versed in the art of making money from newspapers and turned The Sunday Times into a ruthlessly commercial operation. On the 4th February 1962 the Sunday Times launched the very first colour supplement, almost a year to the day after the launch the Sunday Telegraph, both events which ramped up the level of competition in the Sunday newspaper market. It was not until 1964 that the Observer was able to respond with its own 'Colour Magazine' and although by 1967 its circulation had reached an all-time high of 907,000, the losses had only got worse.

The Trelford Years

By 1975 the economics of running a newspaper on presses that only ran just once a week no longer made any sense. In an effort to cut costs the chairman, Alfred Goodman, announced that a third of the staff would have to be made redundant, whilst David Astor decided to step down as editor in favour of Donald Trelford, in the belief that the latter's organising abilities would enable the paper to turn the corner. Sadly a rather dramatic drop in circulation to 665,000 by September 1976 forced the Trust to put the paper up for sale.

Secret negotiations were opened with Rupert Murdoch, then owner of The Sun and the News of the World. The existence of such negotiations were soon leaked and led to a storm of protest, with Clive James famously claiming that "Giving the Observer to Rupert Murdoch is like giving your beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter to a gorilla". The level of protest was such that Murdoch was persuaded to withdraw from the negotiations, although it still left the Trust with the problem of finding a buyer for the near bankrupt paper. In the end one of the paper's feature writers named Kenneth Harris made contact with Robert Anderson, the chairman of Atlantic Richfield. Attracted by the glamour of owning a major British newspaper, Anderson agreed to pay £1 for 90% of The Observer together with a commitment to invest £3m over the following three years, by which time the paper was expected to be in profit.

From paper's point of view being owned by a Texan based oil company was perhaps the least worst option, since they had plenty of money and didn't interfere in day-to-day editorial matters. Of course the promised profits never materialised, on the contrary the losses only got bigger and reached £8m. As a result Andersen became increasingly disenchanted with his investment, being especially disappointed with the paper's continued endorsement of the Labour Party in 1979 despite the Winter of Discontent. Having secured the remaining 10% of the paper from the Astor Trust, Anderson was inclined to sell, and when his suggestion that his friend Kenneth Harris join the board was dismissed out of hand, he decided enough was enough.

On the very next day, the 21st February 1981, Anderson met with Tiny Rowland of Lonrho plc and agreed to sell the paper for $4.5m in cash plus a 40% share in George Outram. The management and journalists were unified in their horror at the prospect and lobbied the government to refer the sale to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Although they succeeded in this objective, when the MMC report appeared on the 29th June 1981 it could find no reason to block the purchase, and on condition that Lonrho agreed to the appointment of a board of independent directors, waived the deal through.

David Astor was mortified at the decision; "It is hard to see how that paper can avoid being dead or unrecognisable within three years". He may well have been right as the Lonrho years are another period in the paper's history which its current owners are inclined to gloss over. At the time Tiny Rowland was engaged in a battle for the control of the House of Fraser and his main interest in acquiring a British newspaper was to provide himself with a platform to put his case across. Initially Trelford succeeded in restricting Rowland's influence to the paper's Business section, but within a year or two the paper had abandoned any pretence at independence and had largely became the mouthpiece for Lonrho. Both its reputation and its circulation declined over the next decade, as both Rowland and Lonrho became involved in an increasingly acrimonious dispute with Mohammed Al-Fayed, in the midst of which one of the paper's journalists named Farzad Bazoft was arrested and hanged for espionage in Iraq in 1989.

Eventually Lonrho was overwhelmed by one of its periodic liquidity crises in 1992 and Rowland reluctantly put the paper up for sale. (By this time the paper was losing £14m a year, and these losses were one of the principal reasons why Lonrho was short of cash in the first place.) Initially The Independent appeared to be the only buyer for the paper as it was interested in merging it with its new Independent on Sunday, but in the end Rowland was persuaded to preserve the Observer name by selling the paper to the Guardian Media Group, the owners of The Guardian daily newspaper.

The Guardian years

Trelford was instantly replaced as editor by Jonathan Fenby, as the new owners sought to distance themselves from the paper's most recently acquired reputation. Fenby however lasted only until 1995 and over the next five years the paper went through three different editors, until finally settling on the figure of Roger Alton who has edited the paper since 1998. The rapid succession of editors was a sign that the process of assimilating the Observer was not painless and involved a large number of redundancies, and although the paper continues to have a separate editor, it is in effect the 'Sunday Guardian'. On the 8th January 2006 it followed its stablemate in abandoning the broadsheet format in favour of the so-called Berliner format and claimed to be the UK's "only full colour Sunday newspaper". The owners were soon boasting that the relaunch had sent the "circulation soaring by 95,257 copies to a monthly average issue sale of 542,075 copies", although by November 2006 sales were back down to 448,076, which is where they started in the first place.


The Editors of the Observer


SOURCES

  • History of the Observer June 6, 2002
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,3858,4428360-110548,00.html
  • Stephen Pritchard, Unravelling the DNA inside Britain's oldest Sunday paper January 1, 2006
    http://observer.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/story/0,,1674998,00.html
  • The Observer at http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRsundayobserver.htm
  • Dennis Griffiths, Three centuries of prime ministers in the press come to an end, 21 July 2005
    http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/article/210705/three_centuries_of
  • The entry for NEWSPAPERS in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Ward and Trent, et al. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907–21)
    Bartleby.com, 2000 (www.bartleby.com/cambridge/).
  • Abu Abraham, David Astor Editor Extraordinary at http://www.tribuneindia.com/2002/20020126/windows/main4.htm
  • Tom Bower, Tiny Rowland, A Rebel Tycoon (Heinemann, 1993)

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