The Guardian has never been much of a business. Its owners never got rich; in fact, they gave the newspaper away. Its history is peppered with financial crises and near-death experiences. Perhaps it was placed on earth to make “righteousness readable” (in the centenary words of Lord Robert Cecil), but the paper has nearly always struggled to make it remunerative.
And yet this year it is celebrating its two hundredth anniversary. Born on the day Napoleon Bonaparte died—May 5, 1821—The Guardian now has around $1.4 billion in the bank, more than a million paying supporters or subscribers, and profitable operations in the US and Australia, which enable it to report around the clock and to reach well over 1.5 billion online readers around the world every year. Not bad for a paper that began life being cranked out on a primitive handpress at 125 copies an hour.
The 750 journalists who work at The Guardian today can reflect that their predecessors eventually got around to reporting the death of Napoleon nearly two months later and recorded the celebrations for the coronation of George IV the same year. The paper had a man on the spot to capture in perhaps too much graphic detail the death throes of William Huskisson, a member of Parliament taken unawares in 1830 by the speed of the engineer George Stephenson’s Rocket steam locomotive. (“Lord Wilson put a handkerchief round the mangled limb and twisted it with a stick to form a tourniquet for the purpose of stopping the effusion of blood.”) It had a ringside seat for the great struggle for parliamentary reform in 1832 and backed Prime Minister William Gladstone’s Home Rule for Ireland campaign fifty-odd years later.
In 1887 the paper’s features (“colour”) writer attended Queen Victoria’s garden party in celebration of her fifty years on the throne and made a note of her “swimming, sweeping gait.” One of its reporters was on the beach at Gallipoli in 1915, another made it to Dublin in time for the climax of the Easter Rising the following year, and yet another was at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in December 1917 when it was stormed by the Bolsheviks. Its correspondent conducted a day-long interview with Leo Tolstoy in 1905. (“Russian ladies nowadays write excellently…only, they have nothing to say.”) Lenin granted a somewhat shorter interview in 1919.
The Guardian saw Niccolò Paganini perform in Manchester in 1832 and Henry Irving play Charles I in 1873. Its music critic watched from the wings as Richard Wagner rehearsed his singers for the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876. The paper’s critics were still puzzled by Gustav Mahler in 1920 but impressed by Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film Battleship Potemkin when it was shown in the UK in 1929. After seeing a Luigi Pirandello play on a prototype Baird television set in August 1930, its drama critic was reluctant to write the medium off altogether.
Its reporter C.B. Marriott sent dispatches from the Paris Commune siege in 1871. J.M. Synge wrote on Irish poverty in 1905, Arthur Ransome on famine in the Volga region in 1921, F.A. Voigt on the rise of fascism in March 1933, and Martha Gellhorn on Vietnam in 1966. When Neville Chamberlain pronounced peace with honor in October 1938, The Guardian didn’t believe him.
The paper has, in other words, seen a lot, and has had a lot to say.
The original investors were not in it for a quick buck: indeed, they were quite ready to lose their seed capital. They came together to start a newspaper because they felt that Manchester—a city built on the growth of the cotton industry, powered by new factories and mills, and gripped by the hunger for political reform—needed one, even though it already had at least five.
A clue to their motives can be found in the Peterloo Massacre of August 16, 1819. Eighteen people were killed and as many as 670 were injured when the cavalry, encouraged by the local Manchester magistrates, charged into a crowd of working-class protesters peacefully demanding greater political representation.
How public opinion was formed in 1819 was not so different from the present day. There were widely conflicting accounts of what had happened, with the magistrates keen to promote their version through the press and the courts: that their forces had come under attack from a violent mob. They were not short of newspapers that would put political interests above the truth.
Whom to believe? John Edward Taylor, a prominent cotton merchant and civic leader, was in the crowd that day and predicted the tide of propaganda, which began with the magistrates sending false accounts to the Home Office. He also knew The Times’s correspondent, John Tyas, was in custody and unable to file a report. So he wrote a hurried account himself and got it on the mail coach to London. It was published on August 18. It is fascinating to read The Times over the subsequent days, as the paper’s great editor, Thomas Barnes, attempted to establish a common foundation of evidence for what had happened. He used what we might now call crowd-sourcing (“I was there”) and aggregation (“here’s the Liverpool Mercury and the Manchester Herald account”) to build up a kaleidoscope of eyewitness testimony. It was, in the end, overwhelmingly supportive of Taylor’s account.
The historian E.P. Thompson later described this battle for truth as one between the “OK witness” (i.e., bishops and generals) and the “non-OK witnesses” (i.e., working-class). Thanks in large part to Taylor, Tyas, and The Times, the non-OK side eventually triumphed. Thompson’s judgment, written in 1957, was that “never since Peterloo has authority dared to use equal violence on a peaceful British crowd.” Peterloo, according to The Guardian’s centenary historian and chief reporter, William Haslam Mills, marked “the début of the reporter in English public life.”1
About eighteen months later Taylor hatched a plan to launch The Manchester Guardian. The dozen founders were all Nonconformists (Protestants outside the Church of England), and at least ten were Unitarians (a church linked with social reform). Most were liberal campaigners, although connected with the cotton trade. Each contributed £100 (around $15,000 in today’s currency). If the paper succeeded, their investment would be repaid; if it failed, they would write off their losses. Sophia Russell Scott, Taylor’s future wife, wrote to her brother, Russell: “Their view was public advantage. They were willing to take the risk without wishing to have any share in the profits.”
The first edition—a four-page folio—carried a stamp to indicate compliance with the four-penny tax then levied on all newspapers (there was an additional tax of three shillings and six pence on each of the forty-seven advertisements). The stamp duty “tax on knowledge” deliberately put newspapers beyond the means of anyone but the elite, but they were passed from hand to hand and read aloud at large public meetings. Each copy might be devoured by as many as thirty people.
It seems clear that in starting The Guardian, Taylor had two aims: to bear reliable witness in a world of information confusion and to shape views. “A newspaper in that age had much soul and very little substance,” wrote Mills in the centenary history. “It was most probably established, not to make money, but to make opinion. It had something to say but very little to tell. It thought much more than it knew.”
Twin purposes, but not to be muddled. “Comment is free, but facts are sacred,” The Guardian’s greatest editor, C.P. Scott, pronounced one hundred years after its birth. Over that period the paper had built up a reputation for both fair and, at times, fearless reporting alongside the influencing of opinion. Then as now, it was important to distinguish between the two.
One of the first hires was Jeremiah Garnett, whose skills included printing, reporting, and, later, editing. Another early hire was John Harland, of the Hull Packet, who for thirty years used his formidable proficiency at shorthand to record political speeches. For the first time in history a wide public could read verbatim accounts of the main agitators for—and against—political reform.
The paper may have been born in an age of radical ferment—some feared a revolution because of dissatisfaction with Parliament, which was riddled with “rotten boroughs” having virtually no voters, and just 2 percent of the population had the vote—but its politics, at least in its early days, remained what Mills termed “studiously moderate and opportunistic.” Its centrist views (doubtless trimmed so as not to alienate the new cotton middle class) sometimes managed to offend Tories as well as Radicals (supporters of parliamentary reform), but it was successful in attracting a broad readership. By 1840 the paper was the market leader in Manchester and the third-biggest provincial paper in the UK, but it dismayed those seeking more reforming fire and campaigning edge.
The paper initially fared well financially. Advertising flooded in. There are purists who deplore the (until recently) overwhelming dependence of newspapers on advertising, but they forget that—as the press historian Francis Williams wrote in 1957—“the daily press would never have come into existence as a force in public and social life if it had not been for the need of men of commerce to advertise.” The Guardian and newspapers like it published small ads on the front page, which bought them, at last, independence from political parties. The ads also meant that Taylor could repay the original investors, with interest.
In 1824 Taylor married Sophia, his first cousin. The bond between their families was further strengthened with the appointment of Sophia’s twenty-five-year-old nephew, C.P. Scott, as editor of the paper in 1872. By the time he retired fifty-seven years later, Scott had become a towering figure in local, national, and international journalism. He had also become his own proprietor, having purchased the paper along with the consistently profitable Manchester Evening News (using his own personal means and borrowed money) in 1907.
Whether as owner or editor, Scott never doubted that the editorial imperative trumped any commercial considerations. His centenary essay was clear:
A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business, like any other, and has to pay in the material sense in order to live. But it is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and it influences the life of a whole community; it may affect even wider destinies…. It may educate, stimulate, assist, or it may do the opposite. It has, therefore, a moral as well as a material existence, and its character and influence are in the main determined by the balance of these two forces. It may make profit or power its first object, or it may conceive itself as fulfilling a higher and more exacting function. I think I may honestly say that, from the day of its foundation, there has not been much doubt as to which way the balance tipped…. Had it not been so, personally I could not have served it.
In a speech on his eightieth birthday, in 1926, Scott underlined these priorities, describing a newspaper as “a public-utility service…essential to the interests of the public.”
Six years later Scott was dead. Within four months, his forty-eight-year-old son, Ted, who had briefly succeeded him as editor, drowned while sailing. C.P.’s third child, J.R., now manager of the family business, placed the two papers into a trust—the Scott Trust, formally established in 1936 (and reconstituted in 1948, and again in 2008).
In effectively giving away the paper, J.R. Scott prevented it from being snapped up by a press baron such as Lord Beaverbrook or Lord Northcliffe. For the rest of his working life he drew only a normal salary. “He could have been a rich man,” wrote Sir William Haley, later the editor of The Times. “He chose a Spartan existence.” (Not everyone approved of this singular act of philanthropy. Gavin Simonds, the future Lord Chancellor, who was advising Scott, told him, “It seems to me that you are trying to do something very repugnant to the law of England. You are trying to divest yourself of a property right.”)
The sole official object of the Scott Trust, which continues to own The Guardian (and still has a Scott on its board), is that the newspaper “shall be conducted in the future on the same lines and in the same spirit as heretofore.” Since 1936, that is the only instruction given to incoming editors (of which there have, since that date, been just six): “As heretofore.”
Numerous books have been written about newspaper proprietors, from William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and Edward Scripps to Lord Northcliffe, Robert Maxwell, and Rupert Murdoch. Less examined is what it means for journalists not to have one. What if no one is telling you what to write, or whom not to offend?
Editors with no proprietor have a freedom—and assume a power—that is unthinkable under the watchful eye of a Murdoch or a Barclay brother (owners of the Telegraph). They are likely to have a different kind of relationship with their staff and with their readers. The organization is bound to be less of a pyramid, pointing up to a usually elusive figure on high. It is likely to listen more closely to the reporter in the field than any voice from above.
Decision-making among peers can undoubtedly be messy and subject to group-think. The morning editorial conference—open to all—can be a fermentation vessel for ideas, and can also be a place of furious disagreement. There is no “line to take” on Europe, Putin, whom to support in a general election, Israel-Palestine, or Syria. The editorial staff, with the editor, have to decide for themselves.
The trust officially has no views. When I was editor of The Guardian, from 1995 to 2015, I sometimes turned to the chair of the trust for advice—being first to publish the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013 (rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize, shared with The Washington Post) was certainly one such moment—but I felt free to ignore it without consequences.
There are, inevitably, occasional tensions between the trust—there to protect the “heretofore” of editorial independence—and the business-side executives (with their own management and oversight boards) who have to keep the paper afloat (the preferred internal term is “profit-seeking” rather than “nonprofit”). One wonder of the past two hundred years is how seldom those tensions have broken through.
James Murdoch famously concluded a lecture in 2009 with the ringing cry: “The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.” The more alert in the room asked themselves, “Independence from whom?” No amount of profit will buy you independence from Rupert Murdoch, if he happens to own you. Scott and his successors were free to think and report what they liked—even, sometimes, at a short-term cost to the business.
Somewhat to the alarm of his business managers, Scott became more radical in his politics from the mid-1880s onward. He vigorously supported Gladstone’s drive for Irish self-rule within the UK, and went on to oppose imperialism in Africa, to support the suffragists, and to help define the liberal politics that grew out of the decline of the Whigs. “Scott threw the whole weight of the paper on the side of Home Rule, that is to say, to the left,” wrote Dennis McKeown in a 1972 Ph.D. dissertation on him, “and this just as its readers were going over in droves to the right.”2 Scott didn’t stop there, vociferously opposing the Boer War and publishing searing accounts from his correspondent Emily Hobhouse on the disgraceful conditions in the concentration camps the British had constructed in South Africa to hold Boer families who had been burned out of their farms.
Large sections of the public, in full patriotic fervor, loathed what they saw as the paper’s treachery. The Guardian’s offices and Scott’s house were put under police protection. The paper lost a dangerous number of readers, leading David Ayerst to write in his “Guardian”: Biography of a Newspaper (1971), “What happened between the Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the end of the Boer War in 1902 nearly killed the Guardian.”
There was a similarly virulent reaction in 1956, when Britain and France seized the Suez Canal. “An act of folly without justification in any terms but brief expediency,” rasped the editorials written by the newly installed Alastair Hetherington. “It pours petrol on a growing fire…. It is wrong on every count—moral, military, and political.” These were rousing phrases, but caused initial mass defections among readers, as the circulation manager reported to then chairman Laurence Scott. He told Hetherington not to let the figures influence his editorial judgment.
In both cases it proved good for business in the longer term for the paper to hold its editorial nerve. Readers can often have an acute instinct for when a newspaper is acting out of principle—a relevant lesson in the present age, when metrics can be designed to reward or prioritize content that is seen to please the audience (or, at the very least, not alienate it). Metrics might have demanded support for Britain’s actions in South Africa and Suez. Metrics would have been wrong.
The reluctance of the Scott Trust, not to mention the boards that oversee the paper on its behalf, to intervene in editorial issues can give the newsroom a rare shield of protection. When, in 2013, a number of parliamentarians tried to persuade the Guardian Media Group board and the Scott Trust to prevent me, as editor, from reporting on Snowden’s surveillance revelations, both bodies responded that they literally had no powers to intervene.
The cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, had done his best to persuade us that, about two weeks after the first story appeared, it was time to stop. Fearing that we would face an injunction, we transferred the top-secret leaked material to The New York Times, since there is greater protection against prior restraint in the US. I was then hauled in front of a House of Commons select committee—with two police officers, by then investigating me, waiting in the next room as I was asked by an MP, “Do you love your country?”
It was at moments such as this that trust ownership came into its own.
There have been both lean and comfortable times over the decades. The 1930s—battered by an economic depression—were precarious. The late 1850s had been as well, mainly due to the rising cost of paper and the rising cost of producing a newspaper by then selling for only a penny: the severe cutbacks in the editorial budget were remarked on by Friedrich Engels, who wrote to Karl Marx in April 1858, “The Guardian chaps have reduced all expenses, correspondents’ contributions etc. Their attempt to produce a first-class provincial paper has completely collapsed.”
By the end of World War I advertising revenues were healthy and profits were rising. In subsequent lean years The Guardian came to rely on cross-subsidies from the much more profitable Manchester Evening News, which raked in local advertising and had none of the national or international editorial costs of its sister paper.
In 1959 The Guardian dared to drop “Manchester” from its title in bold anticipation of being regarded as a truly national paper. There was a near-death crisis after it started printing in London in 1961 and moved its editorial headquarters there in 1964. By 1965 Laurence Scott believed The Guardian couldn’t survive: it was losing £900,000 a year (about $21 million in today’s money). He began covert negotiations to merge it with The Times, but the plan was scuppered when Hetherington heard about it. Editors of The Guardian did not inevitably have veto power, but, in C.P. Scott’s 1921 phrase, they marched “just an inch or two in advance” of the business manager.
Financial salvation eventually came in two forms. The first was the astute buildup of classified job advertising: by 1992 the paper had a commanding position in the UK market. (This went into reverse with the collapse of “small ads” in print and the rise of not only Craigslist but Big Tech, as a result of which The Guardian last made a profit in 2004.) The other was the purchase and development of Auto Trader, a magazine and subsequently a website for selling used cars. As the revenues from the Manchester Evening News also began to decline, The Guardian became more reliant on a subsidy from the profits of Auto Trader.
In 1993 the Scott Trust acquired the highly unprofitable Observer, the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper, in a bid to stave off competition from the burgeoning Independent and Independent on Sunday. The Guardian and The Observer now coexist, sharing a number of journalists and back-office facilities. By 2014 the trust was able to sell the flourishing Auto Trader and create an endowment of around $1.3 billion to help secure the future of The Guardian. In 2019–2020 The Guardian and The Observer (by now jointly accounted for) lost around $39 million—covered by a cautious drawdown from the endowment. The company recently announced a £16 million ($22 million) “cash outflow” for 2020–2021.
Twenty-five years into the digital whirlwind it is obvious that ruthless and indiscriminate cutting back on editorial costs combined with the merging of more and more titles into ever larger asset-stripping vehicles is seldom a recipe for editorial or commercial success. Any news business that does not place journalism at its heart cannot expect to flourish.
The Guardian has chosen to remain accessible by all while attracting both subscriptions and voluntary support. In 2017 the trust also announced the creation of theguardian.org, a US-based nonprofit with tax-exempt status to attract philanthropic giving in support of public interest journalism, including projects on climate change, guns, and health inequality. In 2012 it had come up with the idea of some form of membership to The Guardian, in the hope that readers would support “their” paper as a public good (“I pay so that everyone can read it”) rather than a private one (“I pay so that I can read it”). The company recently announced that readers contributed £69 million ($95.7 million) in subscriptions and donations in 2020–2021—a growth of 61 percent. The Australian edition, launched in 2013, is now profitable and, with reader donations, employs more than seventy journalists.
The paper was simultaneously investing heavily in investigative journalism. The Wikileaks releases about secret US Defense Department documents and diplomatic cables relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caught international attention. The five-year investigation into phone-hacking at News Corps led to the closure of the News of the World, the jailing of its editor, and the subsequent government inquiry into press ethics. There followed influential series on corporate and individual tax avoidance, torture and rendition by Western intelligence agencies, modern slavery around the world, and toxic dumping by Western companies in African countries. A long investigation into undercover surveillance, involving police officers who formed relationships with activists, including members of environmental and black justice groups, sometimes even fathering children with them, has led to another public inquiry. The Snowden revelations again catapulted The Guardian to international notice in 2013.
That reporting—challenging, expensive, legally fraught, and unpredictable as it was—turned out to be a kind of business model, attracting readers who might think, “If that’s the kind of journalism you produce, I’ll support it.”
Of course, The Guardian will never be universally admired. Paul Dacre, the former editor of The Daily Mail, a large-circulation conservative tabloid, denounced in a 2007 lecture what he termed the “subsidariat”—he included The Times, the BBC, The Independent, and The Guardian—for being unable to connect with enough readers to be commercially viable in the way tabloids do. He found this both morally and editorially reprehensible. A self-appointed elite, he argued, was able “to impose minority values on the great majority.”
But the criticisms come as often from the left. Capitalism’s Conscience, a collection of essays published to coincide with The Guardian’s bicentenary, contests the notion that—in the words of the book’s editor, Des Freedman of Goldsmiths College, University of London—“the Guardian has ever been a reliable ally for the left.” In his introductory essay, Freedman deplores the tendency (by Guardian staff, he says, as well as its chroniclers) to “fetishize” the actions of the founder, John Edward Taylor, as those of a brave truthteller:
It is an uncomfortable reality for the Guardian that the capital required for its start-up came largely from an industry whose own wealth was intimately bound up with the profits accrued from the slave trade, and the prospectus clearly illustrates that the title was designed to be the house organ of cotton interests.
Gary Younge, until recently a prominent columnist on the paper, writes in the collection that The Guardian can never live up to the left’s expectations:
The Guardian is perceived as a left-wing paper in relation to what else is on offer. People on the left, therefore, expect more from it—more from it than it has ever given and more than it probably would ever give. But because it’s the one place where people on the left feel that they may see themselves or their worldview, then it disappoints more keenly precisely because they expect more from it.
Very similar things were written about the paper in the 1820s.
The most recent disappointment for those on the left was the paper’s failure—as they saw it—to wholeheartedly embrace Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Younge writes:
The issue I raised internally, repeatedly, was not that we should support Corbyn—newspapers should not act as adjuncts to political parties—but that we should be more curious about what he represented and why. It wasn’t our job to predict the outcome but it was necessary to describe and interpret what we saw.
Capitalism’s Conscience does acknowledge remarkably positive and progressive aspects of The Guardian’s more recent history, including in-depth coverage of the developing world, a better-than-some track record on diversity, a commitment to investigative reporting, and a balanced approach to Brexit. The Guardian’s women’s page, started in 1957, became “an important site of consciousness raising for what was then unfolding in the UK to become the Women’s Liberation Movement,” according to an essay by Hannah Hamad. On the other hand, Mareile Pfannebecker and Jilly Boyce Kay criticize the paper’s “centrist feminism,” which is, they say, pitted against trans rights.
So the paper can disappoint the left and anger the right. To my understanding of its “heretofore,” some of the criticism stems from some confusion about its origins. The point of Taylor’s response to Peterloo was not that he should have backed all the demands of the Radicals. He simply believed no progress was possible without an agreed-upon version of the facts.
Maybe, after recent years of increasingly not knowing whom or what to believe, we can look back at that modest two-hundred-year-old aspiration with a degree of gratitude. No one now buys a newspaper to make long-term profits. Maybe the Taylor-Scott vision of news as public service could return to fashion.