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Guardian Media Group

Overview

This profile considers the Guardian Media Group, centred on the Guardian and the Observer newspapers in the UK.


It covers -

  • introduction
  • the group
  • the Guardian
  • the Evening News & Chronicle
  • the Observer
  • a different sort of proprietorship?
  • Guardian studies
  • Observer studies

Introduction

The Guardian Media group (GMG) traces its origins to establishment of the Observer in 1791. It now encompasses national and local newspaper titles, commercial radio broadcasting and electronic publishing activity.

The group is owned by the Scott Trust.

The group

The group currently publishes national daily and weekly newspapers in the UK and overseas, including the Guardian, the Observer, Guardian Weekly, Guardian Europe, Money Observer and Guardian News Services. Its Regional Newspaper Division comprises the Manchester Evening News, Manchester Metro News and City Life, along with over 40 other paid-for and free titles published from Berkshire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Surrey.

Its Trader Media Group (TMG) publishes over 70 weekly publications, including Auto Trader, Bike Trader, Truck Trader and Top Marques.
TMG owns the UK's busiest automotive web site and also offers interactive services on digital television and mobile phones. It operates in the UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Italy and South Africa. Its annual turnover as of 2004 was in excess of £280 million.

GMG involvement in UK radio commenced in 1999. The group secured two Real Radio licences in South Wales and Yorkshire and acquired Scot FM (now Real Radio Scotland) and Jazz FM licences in London and the north west (Jazz FM north west is now Smooth FM).

The group's Workthing arm - founded in 2000 and sold in 2004 - provided corporate recruitment solutions.

Learnthings custom-builds educational web materials, with the Learnpremium e-learning subscription service for schools.

The Guardian

The Guardian was founded as the Manchester Guardian in 1821 by non-conformist businessmen led by John Edward Taylor. It became a morning daily in 1855.

The paper's history has been dominated by the figure of Charles Prestwich Scott (1846-1932), editor for 57 years from 1872 and an embodiment of High Victorian liberalism (free trade, cautious franchise reform, principled dissent about the excesses of imperialism, a meliorist approach to social reform and an emphasis on personal good works). Scott acquired the Guardian from the estate of Taylor's son in 1907.

Although affected by the erosion of Manchester's industrial base from 1900 onwards, the Guardian gained support from the left and centre through querstioning of the Boer War and admirable coverage of the Spanish Civil War. The Scotts acquired the daily Manchester Evening News during 1924, pulling the group through the Great Slump, 1939-45 War and Fifties. In 1959 'Manchester' was dropped from the Guardian's title and in 1964 its editorial base moved to London.

Emphasis on editorial independence - embodied in ownership from 1936 by the Scott Trust, discussed below - was reflected in failure of 1966 talks about a merger with the Times (which instead became part of Murdoch's News group) and takeover of the ailing Observer in 1993. That latter move preempted capture of the Observer by the The Independent and Independent on Sunday (which had been strengthened by takeover by Tony O'Reilly's INM). The Scott Trust's media holdings were reorganised in 1992 as Guardian Media Group (GMG).

In 1995 GMG became majority shareholder in M&G Media in South Africa, rebadging the Weekly Mail (an Independent-inspired title founded 1986) as the Mail & Guardian. That paper continued to lose money; GMG transferred most of its stake to Zimbabwean publisher Trevor Ncube in 2002.

It had meanwhile been acquiring local titles in the UK, extending its Trader Media Group - with operations in the UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Italy and South Africa - and moving back into radio broadcasting after earlier disposal of radio and television interests. CP Scott had dismissed early television experimentation with the comment

Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good will come of this device

Will Self sniffed in Feeding Frenzy (New York: Viking 2002) that the Guardian has degenerated into "little more than the lickspittle house journal of new Labour" as

a tabloid-broadsheet, a Daily Mail for the dumbed-down and deracinated, who'd rather read easy-to-swallow gobbets about Dolce e Gabbana than the kind of serious, campaigning articles that characterised the paper in its heyday.

The Evening News and Chronicle

The daily Manchester Evening News was launched in 1868 by Mitchell Henry as part of his campaign for election to Parliament. It was sold during that year to John Edward Taylor, a member of the Guardian's Taylor family. Taylor subsequently made Peter Allen, his brother-in-law, a partner in the Evening News and the Allen family gained control following Taylor's death in 1907. The Scott family acquired the Evening News during 1924.

In 1961 the Guardian acquired the daily Manchester Evening Chronicle from the Berry family. The Chronicle had been founded in 1897 by Edward Hulton, a former Guardian employee. In 1963 the Chronicle was merged with the Evening News as the Manchester Evening News & Chronicle.

The Observer

The Astors made a fortune from fur-trading and property (at one stage they were reputed to be the largest slum landlords in the US). Like Beaverbrook and Roy Thomson, some members of the clan gravitated to the UK and gained a peerage for rescuing newspapers such as the Times (from the estate of Northcliffe, 'Napoleon of Fleet Street') and the Observer.

John Jacob Astor migrated to the US in 1783 and became rich through the American Fur Company, with a fortune estimated at over US$20 million. Descendant William Waldorf Astor moved to the UK, where he became a British subject in 1899. He bought the Pall Mall Gazette, established the Pall Mall Magazine - the Quadrant of its day - and funded the Liberal Party, being rewarded with a peerage. His son Waldorf Astor, who died in 1952, served as publisher of The Observer (acquired from the Harmsworths). Waldorf's brother John Jacob Astor became chief owner of the London Times in 1922, later acquired by Roy Thomson and Rupert Murdoch.

In 1977 the Astors sold the ailing Observer to US oil giant Atlantic Richfield, which flogged it in 1981 to the unsavoury Lonrho under 'Tiny' Rowland. In 1993 the Guardian Media Group bought the paper to preempt a merger with the Independent on Sunday, now controlled by O'Reilly.

A different sort of proprietorship

The Guardian group is owned by the Scott Trust, rather than by a listed company or by a private individual/family.

The Trust was established in 1936 following the death of CP Scott and Edward Scott (and restructured in 1948 to reflect changes to the UK tax regime). The expectation was that transfer of ownership to the Trust would prevent sale or closure of the titles as a result of death duties and would protect the Guardian's liberal stance from interference by future press barons.

In 1992 the Trust identified its central objective as being to

secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity as a quality national newspaper without party affiliation; remaining faithful to liberal tradition; as a profit-seeking enterprise managed in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

The Trust formalises the ethos apparent in some family-controlled media groups - notably the Sulzberger's New York Times - and is similar to the FAZ Stiftung, the foundation that controls the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

It has benefitted from advantages under UK taxation law and, more broadly, from the continued success of the Evening News and less prominent GMG publications. Similar mechanisms have failed when the publications that they controlled lost significant money on an ongoing basis, for example A-pressen in Norway and PCM in the Netherlands.

Guardian and Evening News studies

David Ayerst's The Manchester Guardian: Biography of A Newspaper (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 1971), is essential reading, albeit redolent of Manchester fog and worthiness. It has been updated by the thinner Changing Faces: A History of the Guardian (London: Fourth Estate 1993) by Geoffrey Taylor.

Guardian belle lettres is showcased in The Bedside Years: The Best Writing From the Guardian, 1951-2000 (New York: Atlantic 2002) edited by Matthew Engel. For an earlier epoch see The Manchester Guardian: a Century of History (New York: Holt 1922) edited by William Mills & CP Scott and The Guardian Book of the Spanish Civil War (Aldershot: Wildwood 1987) edited by R H Haigh & D S Morris.

The Political Diaries of CP Scott 1911-1928 (London: Collins 1970) edited by Trevor Wilson is a fascinating account from Charles Prestwich Scott, Manchester Guardian editor for 58 years and one of the fathers of what Noel Annan characterised as 'Our Age'. JL Hammond's disappointingly reverent CP Scott of the Manchester Guardian (London: Bell & Sons 1934) and Peter Clarke's Lancashire and the New Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1971) consider the environment. Malcolm Muggeridge's novel Picture Palace (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1987) offers a characteristically ungenerous portrait of Scott. There is a more perceptive analysis in C.P. Scott, 1846-1932: The Making of the 'Manchester Guardian' (Westport: Greenwood 1974) by successor AP Wadsworth.

For a perspective on the Guardian's love-hate affair with Israel see Daphna Baram's Disenchantment: the Guardian & Israel (London: Politico's Publishing 2004).

Observer studies

Richard Cockett's intelligent David Astor & The Observer (London: Deutsch 1992) complements his Twilight Of Truth: Chamberlain, Appeasement & The Manipulation of the Press (New York: St Martins 1989).

Stephen Koss's two volume The Rise & Fall of the Political Press in Britain (London: Hamish Hamilton 1984) is essential reading, ideally in conjunction with studies of status such as David Cannadine's The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1990) and Andrew Adonis's Making Aristocracy Work: The Peerage and the Political System in Britain, 1884-1914 (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1993).

Alfred Gollin's The Observer & JL Garvin (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1960) pictures that newspaper at its height.

Charles Wintour's The Rise & Fall of Fleet Street (Hutchinson: London 1989), Northcliffe's Legacy: Aspects of the British Popular Press 1896-1996 (New York: St Martins 2000), edited by Peter Catterall & Colin Seymour-Ure and The Market For Glory (London: Faber 1986) by Simon Jenkins offer perspectives on 'old media' in the UK during the height of the Astor empire.

Michael Astor's memoir Tribal Feeling (London: Murray 1963) is very much a period piece. Peter Stanford's Bronwen Astor: Her Life & Times (London: HarperCollins 2001) is overly respectful to the mystical experiences of a minor figure in the Profumo Affair, for which we recommend An Affair Of State: The Profumo Case & The Framing Of Stephen Ward (New York: Atheneum 1987), an incisive study by Phillip Knightley & Caroline Kennedy.

David Astor - humanitarian and friend of Orwell - has not yet received the biographer that he deserves. He features, somewhat ungenerously, in Richard Hall's My Life With Tiny (London: Faber 1987), primarily concerned with Lonrho's activities in Africa, and in Tom Bower's Tiny Rowland: A Rebel Tycoon (London: Heinemann 1993).