The Guardian in crisis: How Britain’s liberal bugle is destroying itself

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
© Monica Schipper
The Guardian's business model has failed. Now, the web's most prominent hyper-liberal news and comment site faces a stark choice: reform or die.

As a newsman, Alan Rusbridger was an unquestionably fine editor. Under his stewardship, The Guardian led the way on some of the biggest stories in recent memory.

Both the British hacking scandal that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s News Of The World and the Edward Snowden/Wikileaks revelations immediately spring to mind. On the other hand, when it came to managing money, Rusbridger was more Michael Jackson than Michael Bloomberg.

Rusbridger's vision was to transform TheGuardian from being the house journal of Britain’s left-leaning elite into a worldwide news brand. To achieve this, the socialist agenda it long championed was jettisoned for a hyper-liberal philosophy which appealed to young internet users. Today, The Guardian’s influence is global and it now rivals American companies like The New York Times and CNN in online popularity, despite its home market being five-times smaller.

The problem is that it’s not paying its way. Rusbridger’s “open and free” philosophy on the distribution of content has failed. With no pay wall, The Guardian has relied on digital readership growth to generate advertising revenue. However, there’s simply not enough of it. Thus, the paper lost $75 million in the twelve months to March 2016. Now, the company is seeking to reduce staff levels by around 20 percent and cut operating costs dramatically.

A smaller pool of journalists will mean less content, which will inevitably translate into fewer clicks. This will surely make things even worse, and hasten the downward spiral that The Guardian finds itself in. “It’s so hard to get your mind around the fact that this business could be coming to an end,” said a former executive, quoted by The Financial Times.

Decline And Fall

Meanwhile, the newspaper itself is in free fall. Back in 2010, it sold an already meager 302,285 copies daily. Now it shifts only 164,163. For context, Scotland’s Daily Record manages 176,892 sales from a comparatively tiny population base.

All newspapers have suffered a circulation decline since the start of this decade, but few have combusted like The Guardian. For instance, the Daily Mail might have atrophied from 2,120,347 in 2010 to 1,589,481 today, but its liberal peer would kill for those kind of problems. Surely then, after all this investment The Guardian at least out-muscles the Mail online?

Well, no, it doesn’t. According to Similarweb, TheGuardian.com boasts 311 million monthly unique visits. At the same time, dailymail.co.uk can claim 389 million. Yet, the Guardian has sacrificed its core newspaper product in a futile push for online domination, while the Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, hasn’t. This is a terrible indictment of Rusbridger’s leadership.

The Guardian newspaper is dying for myriad reasons. Firstly, management has consistently increased the cover price (from 90p in 2009 to £2 in April 2016) while posting the same content free - and more immediately - online. This is like giving away fresh bread but expecting people to pay for a stale offering because it comes in a nice bag.

A Great Transformation

Historically skeptical of American power, with its self-righteous worldview and reputation as a mouthpiece for Oxbridge-educated liberal leftists, The Guardian has always been a niche product. For decades, its editorial stance turned off much of the British mainstream. Yet, the paper survived, and even thrived, as a premium product.

However, in order to “crack” America, Rusbridger dumped this heritage. His pro-Washington and pro-EU editorial line alienated loyal readers. Additionally, the paper's ongoing demonization of Russia also jarred with The Guardian’s tradition of fairness. Today the paper doesn’t have much of a domestic market because its content is largely irrelevant to Brits.

Rusbridger tried to expand its readership by moving sharply to the right. Atlanticist Jonathan Freedland was hired as comment editor and right-wing writers, such as Timothy Garton-Ash and Natalie Nougayrede, have replaced progressive voices, like John Pilger and Seumas Milne. This punt has failed. Because the British media is already saturated in this regard. The Telegraph and Times, to name just two, already have better, and more widely known, pro-establishment columnists.

Abandoning its Principles

Today, the once pro-worker Guardian is hostile to Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, two politicians it once would have enthusiastically supported. With its left-wing dogma abandoned, the newspaper has switched to the right on geopolitics and economics. Rusbridger attempted to compensate with a big focus on liberal issues, like gay marriage and transgender rights. While earning numerous plaudits, this hasn’t succeeded commercially.

The Guardian would have imploded already, but for a £743 million slush fund, largely generated from the sale of its share in the second-hand car website, Auto Trader. While this sounds like a huge amount of money, the pot is declining at an alarming rate. Just over a year ago, it stood at £838 million. Against this, the Daily Mail's operations reported a 2015 profit of £288 million.

So why is the Daily Mail flourishing, while The Guardian is failing? Aside from markedly different content, its mainly because The Mail hasn’t neglected its fundamental newspaper product like Rusbridger allowed his print edition to rot. Murdoch’s Times is also making money, reporting an £11 million profit recently. Again, The Times newspaper remains the company's priority and its online content is behind a pay wall.

Amidst all this bad news, you'd expect The Guardian to be reviewing the mistakes of the Rusbridger years and planning a new direction. Yet, this isn’t the case. Incredibly, Rusbridger will become Chairman of the Scott Trust, the body that oversees the paper, this summer. This is a bit like putting Tony Blair in charge of a report into the failures of the Iraq war.

If it’s to survive, The Guardian needs a radical overhaul. In the short term, a subscription model - similar to that of the New York Times - might help arrest the decline. A more aggressive pursuit of advertising would also be a boon. Yet, this would require Rusbridger to reject his own philosophy and admit the bankruptcy of his grand vision. As infuriatingly biased as today's Guardian has become, should it fail, the media landscape will be much the poorer for its absence.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.