/ 24 November 2005

The London legacy

Newspaper takeovers, at least in legend, are supposed to be about power or cash or ambition — and sometimes all three together. But sometimes, just very occasionally, none of those things come into the frame.

Sometimes virtue is its own reward. I like to think that was so 60 years ago when the Scott family gave away the Manchester Guardian and a rich inheritance to a trust whose only job, to this day, is to sustain and nurture a great paper. And I like to think, too, that what happened after the editor of The Weekly Mail met the managing director of The Guardian for breakfast at Claridges in November 1991 falls into that selfsame category.

Anton Harber had a big problem. The Weekly Mail, a torch of liberalism and feisty investigation still flickering after the Rand Daily Mail‘s collapse, was short of money and continuing backers. It commanded respect as the old South Africa, and the granite certainties of apartheid, crumbled fast, but it could not command its own future.

Jim Markwick had a much smaller problem. One of his personal babies over the years had been The Guardian Weekly — a tabloid compilation of news and views printed and distributed around the world, but always looking for promising new markets to conquer. South Africa was one such market. The Guardian didn’t print its weekly there and sold only a derisory number of postal copies. That wasn’t a surprise. White Pretoria had never thought it their paper of ideological choice. But now, perhaps, the state of political flux offered the chance of a fresh start. What if the Mail and The Guardian came together, two weeklies wrapped into one: the outer wrap carrying news and views unique in South Africa, the inner core pumped down the line from London, bringing perspective from a wider world?

Maybe, thought Markwick, the two halves thus united would lend each other strength. Maybe this was the best if modest help anyone could offer Harber.

It was not, I should stress, much of a money-maker from day one; rather the contrary. The Guardian involvement was no miracle cure. Indeed, slowly and not always entirely happily, through rights issues and much toiling on the spot, we came to own more than 70% of the paper (along a stretching road of unintended consequences). Did that mean profits flowing in or political power accreting? Not at all. It meant (and I speak for myself) much worrisome distraction over events thousands of kilometres from my editor’s desk in London.

We celebrated our partnership in the old car showroom of an office in downtown Johannesburg with a party that Nelson Mandela blessed — and then I raced back to catch the plane for Britain’s 1992 election, John Major tottering to unlikely victory on his soapbox. From time to time, I’d manage a board meeting via the red eye special from Heathrow or arrive for three days of deep politicking as a new editor had to be chosen. Who, I sometimes wondered, needed so much long-distance aggro (especially while balance sheets still bore so much red ink)? I’d got enough trouble of my own.

But that, of course, was only part of the story. The rest of it was mostly another Guardian ‘good work” in the Scott tradition — but with extra fascination added. It was fascinating for a British journalist, based far away, to have a seat in the stalls as South Africa changed for ever. It was fascinating for another editor to see how a paper that had made its name by principled opposition to a vile government must now adapt fundamentally as that government became history, must adjust to an era where the black politicians it had championed so long would be the masters to be interrogated and, perhaps, opposed. Everything had changed in the world outside the M&G‘s office. Could the paper, too, find a way to change?

One gradual change became more and more evident through the 1990s. Simply, The Guardian, from the beginning, had wanted to help, to keep an independent voice sounding loud and clear above the hubbub — but now, equally simply, The Guardian was an impediment. Too much of South Africa’s press was owned from overseas in any case. If the M&G was going to fulfil its role as a monitor and critic of state authority from time to time, then an owner sitting in a London office was a problem, not a solution. The paper itself was determined and vibrant: it knew the direction it must strive to take. It needed ownership — there, on the ground — to match.

That’s why we sold most of our share of the action and let new action men take over. We’d done what we could. We were getting in the way. But we also wanted to leave something of a legacy behind.

Year after year, the Guardian Foundation, the Scott Trust’s overseas training arm, has helped to fund the M&G‘s traineeship scheme, giving young journalists the chance to learn and work on the paper. It’s a commitment we’re all proud of.

There’s no better training for a journalist than doing the job itself — learning on the spot in the newsroom, seeing his or her words printed in the latest real edition of a real paper — under the guidance of a benign, experienced tutor. The M&G scheme, because of its history, reputation and quality of the journalists who’ve benefited from it, provides some of the best training to be found anywhere in Africa. It always, from the first moment I saw it in action, struck me as something that The Weekly Mail‘s founders, editors and owners could be proud of: another good, practical deed. It remains a very good deed to this day.

And that, in turn, opens up a wider canvas of thought, one that looks back to breakfast in Claridge’s 14 years ago as well as looking to the future. For 2005 provides more than a happy 20th anniversary for the M&G and a moment to celebrate the courage and talent of the writers and editors who’ve brought the paper this far against heavy odds. It has also been the ‘Year of Africa” for Messrs Blair, Brown and world leaders anxious — perhaps — to make a difference to a continent that needs to be different.

Well, no one should turn aside debt relief, inward investment and practical aid too cynically. They’re not enough, but they are something. They’re foundations to build on as long as the words come yoked with deeds to match.

The strongest foundations, though, are the ones one builds for oneself, with care and commitment. They’re the ones that set an example of pride and passion. They show what a country, community or profession can do. And that, I think, is a lesson that anyone who has been with the M&G through some of its journey has learned.

There’s nothing neat about a newspaper’s role in a burgeoning democracy. One bitterly offends those who thought one was a friend the day before yesterday. One fights to keep one’s balance (and sense of responsibility) as pressures pile in. One has to define for oneself, week after week, what true independence means.

That is difficult enough in London or Washington, where the routines of freedom come set in stones of experience and habit; it is damnably difficult in a South Africa still making its world afresh, still fighting to set a continent-wide example of freedom’s way. But the opportunity to influence, and do more good, is tangible.

A few years ago, I was running a course for young journalists in Dar-es-Salaam, with participants from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Mozambique and, of course, Tanzania. They were all articulate, engaged, fiercely intelligent. I couldn’t have asked for more. But I needed a few guest speakers to help the week go round — and one of them, up from Johannesburg for the day, was the (then) editor of the M&G. And, suddenly, he was the main man, the influencer of opinion, the celebrity and role model. Some of them read the M&G in its printed edition, all of them followed it on the Internet. It showed them, they said, what was possible for them: in reporting, analysis, investigation, dogged independence. It was their paper of choice and aspiration.

That’s a daunting reputation to have to live up to, a challenge 52 weeks a year. But, next year and the year after in Africa, it is also the foundation that continuing passion can build. Back at The Guardian in London, we are happy to have had a few paragraphs in this story. But make no mistake where the true action lies: the story that matters most is the one one keeps writing oneself.

Peter Preston was The Guardian editor from 1975 to 1995 and is co-director of The Guardian Foundation