Vol. 6 No. 13 · 19 July 1984

Mutatu Mutandis – or, Worse News at the ‘Observer’

Colin Legum

5495 words

Fleet Street is a raging, under-reported battlefield. For most of the time it’s hard to discover what is going on, and even harder to know how much will be left of Britain’s national newspapers, or what state they will be in, at the end of the current battle of the tycoons. Most of these tycoons have little or no knowledge of owning or managing newspapers, and many of them are foreigners. There is no rule to prevent any foreigner from buying a British national paper, and Colonel Qadhafi himself tried to do so in the case of the Observer.

Readers have no say in the fate of their favourite paper; and shareholders are often kept in the dark. The affairs of newspaper owners seem not to belong in the public domain: indeed, the rival proprietors go to extraordinary lengths to keep the public in the dark about what is happening. When news leaked out in the Guardian (21 June) about the latest eruption in the Observer’s boardroom, Lonrho’s spokesman, Paul Spicer, was not concerned to confirm or deny the accuracy of the report: his only response was to warn that a search would be made to discover which of the directors had leaked the information and that the offender would be sacked. That’s the language of the new Fleet Street tycoons. David Astor, the former editor of the Observer, wrote in a letter to the Times: ‘To allow a newspaper catering to political sector X of our community to be taken over by a proprietor who is a militant member of political sector Y is, plainly, not in the interests of its readers. This is also true in ethical terms; a buccaneer is not a suitable proprietor of a paper trusted for its reliability.’

A rapid survey of the position in Fleet Street shows that at the Observer a state of civil war exists between its buccaneer proprietor, on one side, and its editor, his staff and its independent directors, on the other. Elsewhere, Beaverbrook’s old empire (Fleet Holdings) is a matter of contention: ‘Digger’ Murdoch and ‘Tiny’ Rowland are reported to have engaged in manoeuvres to divide up between themselves the Daily Express, the Sunday Express and the Star, with the intention of closing down the last in order to boost the fortunes of Murdoch’s rising Sun. (At least this was Rowland’s version of what was happening – Murdoch has denied it.) Robert Maxwell is trying to buy a 10 per cent share in Fleet Holdings from the, Australian tycoon Robert Holmes a Court for £15.4 million, while another bidder – it’s not clear whether or not he is a rival to Maxwell – is an Egyptian financier: Dr Ashrat Marwan, son-in-law of the late President Nasser and confidant of the late President Sadat, has been secretly buying up shares in Fleet Holdings on behalf of unspecified Middle Eastern interests. Already, with a 4 per cent holding in these Beaverbrook papers, he owns more than the present wielder of power there, Lord Matthews – the tycoon admirer of Mrs Thatcher – from Trafalgar Holdings. In yet another sortie into the Fleet Holdings battle Swiss bankers are believed to be buying shares eagerly – and again, they are buying them for unknown clients.

Another salient is represented by the Mirror newspapers (the ‘Voice of the People’). The Financial Times wrote on 16 June of developments in that quarter: ‘In the secretive world of national newspaper management’, Clive Thornton ‘is attacking the established order with the same enthusiasm that he brought to the task of chairman of Abbey National’. At the Sunday Times Murdoch’s new team have forced the departure of one of its political columnists, the deputy-editor, Hugo Young – a writer any newspaper might be glad to employ. As to what is happening at the Times – well, reading tastes differ: but who could ever have imagined that the Thunderer would seek to entice readers by conducting an up-market bingo game which is supposed to be more respectable because it is played with stocks and shares? On the outskirts of Fleet Street, the pro and anti-Moscow Communists are engaged in an internecine struggle of their own for the soul of what’s left of the Morning Star.

Reuter’s – originally set up as a non-profit-making venture to produce one of the world’s finest news services – has been stripped of its original charter because its accumulated wealth made irresistible the temptation to float its equity on the Stock Exchange and so enrich a few newspaper proprietors and senior staff – as opposed to using its assets to improve its foreign news service and to investing its surplus in strengthening the financial basis of the media. Whether the guarantees offered to protect the integrity of Reuter’s will stand the test of time remains to be seen.

A piece I wrote for the London Review of Books in November 1982 was headed ‘Bad News at the Observer’. The worst fears expressed there have been justified by subsequent events, which reached a crisis with the public quarrel between the paper’s proprietor and Lonrho’s boss, Roland ‘Tiny’ Rowland, in his Cheapside headquarters, and the editor, Donald Trelford. This began over an article Trelford wrote about atrocities in Zimbabwe. The main point made in 1982 was in line with evidence given to the Monopolies Commission by the paper’s former editor David Astor, by the chairman of the Observer Trust Lord Goodman, and by eight associate editors of the paper. The objection to the sale of the paper to Lonrho was that Rowland’s far-flung business interests would inevitably prove incompatible with the editorial independence of any newspaper he owned. And this, of course, is precisely what lay behind the row that began with Trelford’s report about events in Zimbabwe – a country from which Lonrho derives something like 8 per cent of its global profits. This 8 per cent makes it important for Lonrho to stay on good terms with Mugabe’s government. Before publishing what he had discovered in Matabeleland, Donald Trelford took the proper precaution of telephoning his proprietor to inform him of what he intended to say. Rowland’s response was predictable and revealing: ‘I hear you are trying to destroy my business in Zimbabwe.’ Not the response one might expect from a newspaper proprietor interested in printing the true facts about a major political event.

Although Rowland subsequently said the quarrel had merely been ‘a lover’s tiff, this was far from being the case. Behind the veil of kiss-and-make-up, an unsettling struggle has been going on, with Rowland keen to get rid not only of his editor but of three or four other senior staff members as well – notably the columnist Conor Cruise O’Brien, the financial writer William Keegan, and, in all probability, the political editor Adam Raphael. If he hasn’t sacked them yet, it may only be because he finds himself strapped in by the conditions attached to the sale of the paper. But Rowland is a very determined character – as is shown by his relentless fight with the House of Fraser over the future of Harrods. He is the kind of man who, whatever the cost (even if it runs into millions), and however rough and unpleasant the fight, allows nothing to prevent him from trying to get his way.

His actions since the row began with Trelford have produced a situation at the Observer which senior members of the staff describe as ‘chaotic’. The journalists are deeply demoralised. The managers are ignored by the proprietor. The paper is in deadly jeopardy. The question is whether anything at all can still be done to save the paper by extricating it from Lonrho’s control and stopping it from falling into the hands of somebody like Robert Maxwell, who, like Rowland, is about as unsuitable a proprietor as it is possible to imagine. One has only to recall Maxwell’s recent remark that if he were the paper’s owner he would have ‘stamped on’ the paper’s publication of Mark ‘Thatcher’s part in the Oman deal. The fact that one of Maxwell’s companies has interests in Oman is probably only coincidental, but few would find the remark reassuring. However, it doesn’t seem likely that Rowland was ever serious about selling the paper to Maxwell, who appears to have been brought into the picture, at the height of the crisis over the Zimbabwe report, only as a familiar Lonrho ploy. In private conversation with close associates Rowland speaks of Maxwell as ‘that four-to-five’: a version of the rhyming slang for Jew, ‘four-to-two’, which rates Maxwell’s assets at from four to five million. Not at all in Rowland’s league.

Let’s look at the sequence of events which has left the Observer locked in its battle of attrition. Rowland’s first act after Trelford’s Zimbabwe report appeared on 15 April was to apologise personally to Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and to dissociate himself, as chairman of the paper, from Trelford’s report, which he described as ‘unsubstantiated’ and ‘not based on any research at all’. He even suggested that it was the kind of report one would not have expected from a junior reporter, let alone an editor. His second step was to declare financial war against his own paper, removing all Lonrho’s advertising and vowing to provide no further capital. Rowland’s faithful echo, Paul Spicer (also a Lonrho director), described the paper as ‘a monster out of control, being paid for by us and our shareholders. It costs money to keep the Observer going and the people down there think they can do whatever they like.’ In other words, the journalists think they can maintain their independence regardless of cost.

Step three featured the five independent directors of the Observer Board. According to the Memorandum of Agreement governing the terms of the sale of the paper to Lonrho (a sale ratified by the Secretary of State for Trade, on the advice of the Monopolies Commission), these special directors are required to mediate and, if necessary, adjudicate in the event of a dispute between the proprietor and the editor involving the paper’s editorial independence. The role of these watchdogs is crucial in the present situation. Under the terms of the agreement, the editor cannot be sacked unless a majority of the independent directors endorse the proprietor’s decision to sack him; nor can a new editor be appointed without the approval of a majority of these directors, who are also required to canvass the views of the editorial staff on the suitability of the proprietor’s choice. Nor can the independent directors be removed, or the terms of the agreement changed, even if Lonrho should decide to sell the paper. Rowland’s freedom to exercise the boss’s normal right to fire and hire, or to change the independent directors, is pretty circumscribed. His only hope of getting his way is to divide the independent directors by winning at least three over to his side.

What is crucially important, therefore, is both the quality of the independent directors and their cohesiveness. One recalls how the independent directors of the Times were divided by Murdoch, and so failed miserably to intervene when Harold Evans was sacked as editor. Of the five independent directors in the case of the Observer, two are nominated by Lonrho, two by the Observer’s staff, and these four choose a fifth. The two nominated by Lonrho – on the advice of Lord Shawcross (of whom more later) – are Geoffrey Cox, a former editor and chief executive of Independent Television News, and Dame Rosemary Murray, a former Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and a director of the Midland Bank. The two nominated by the staff are Lord Windlesham, a former Tory Minister and once managing director of Associated Television (ATV), now chairman of the Parole Board, and William Clark, once an Observer journalist, more recently a vice-president of the World Bank and the founder of the Overseas Development Institute. Clark is perhaps best remembered for his act of courage in resigning as Eden’s spokesman at No 10 Downing Street in protest over Suez. These four selected Sir Derek Mitchell, a former Treasury senior official and now senior adviser to Lehman Brothers, the investment bankers. He came in as a rank outsider with his views or likely loyalty ties completely unknown.

On the Tuesday after the Easter weekend, these five directors had a meeting with Rowland in his Cheapside head office before making their adjudication. In typical fashion he conducted what was largely a monologue from 10 a.m. to 2.50 p.m. – without even the offer of a cup of tea. He outlined his views about Africa, spoke of his role in bringing together various of its leaders, and suggested the kind of editorial policy he wanted to see the Observer adopt towards the continent. Some of the directors found his Northcliffian vision not uninteresting: but when he stressed the need to promote conciliation among African leaders (including South Africa’s) in order to produce some stability in the continent, they were left wondering why Rowland thought it was the function of a newspaper to pursue so paternalistic a policy. Besides, Africa could hardly be the principal focus of interest for the paper, even if it figured prominently in the proprietor’s interests. Under the Memorandum of Agreement, while the proprietor is entitled to state his views to the Board and to the editor, the paper’s policy lies solely within the discretion of its editor. The independent directors’ adjudication, unanimously arrived at, was strongly in support of the editor’s right to have published his report on Zimbabwe. It was after this adjudication that Rowland patched up his quarrel with Trelford (or at least gave every appearance of having done so), and turned his anger on the independent directors, describing them as ‘troglodytes’ and anachronistic ‘garden gnomes’. Threatening to cut their fees, from £4000 to £1000, he suggested that they were an encumbrance and had to be got rid of. But how? They can’t be dismissed by him; he can’t replace them with others of his own choice. Using the only instrument in his power – the power of money – he might have hoped to cause them to resign if their directors’ fees were cut. He did not seem to understand that the five would give their services free rather than submit to Rowland’s blandishments. In the event, nothing has since been heard of his threat to cut their fees.

It isn’t difficult to understand Rowland’s frustration. He is used to those on his payroll doing exactly as he dictates. He isn’t going to allow the Observer (or the House of Fraser) to thwart him. As for legal constraints, there are always lawyers who can be hired to change them. This is a proud, self-made man who has known lots of humiliation in his time, and the power of money is the only way he understands of gaining, if not respect, then recognition – especially from the City and Tory Establishment: it was Edward Heath who stigmatised Lonrho as ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’.

Rowland has never made any secret of his antipathy towards Conor Cruise O’Brien and William Keegan, two of the Observer’s best writers. Both had testified to the Monopolies Commission against the sale of the paper to Lonrho. O’Brien had been particularly outspoken. The Lonrho Board appears to be strongly hostile to Keegan because of his consistent opposition to the Prime Minister’s monetarist policies. It matters not at all to them that he is one of the most respected financial writers in the country, and possibly the most elegant stylist in his field.

While it is within the competence of the Board of the Observer to discuss the quality of the journalists and of their contributions to the paper, they have no right to dictate to the editor about whom he employs or how he uses their copy. Aware of Cheapside’s hostility to these two men, their colleagues on the paper have made their treatment a touchstone which allows them to judge the editor’s capacity to fend off proprietorial pressures. Although it was mooted at one time that O’Brien’s column should become fortnightly instead of weekly, that change was never made – principally because of the outrage it would provoke from colleagues. Keegan, though, has been treated less well. His column, which used to appear on the front page of the Business Section, was relegated to a less prominent place inside the paper. Some would argue that this was a justifiable editorial decision; others see it as an act of appeasement. Moreover, without any formal announcement, he was deprived of his position of Business Editor in favour of a relatively inexperienced newcomer to the paper, Melvyn Marckus, a protégé of Ivan Fallon, formerly Business Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and now Assistant Editor of the Sunday Times. Rowland thinks well of Fallon.

One editorial appointment over which the editor reluctantly gave way to Cheapside, against the unanimous wishes of his staff, was that of Godwin Mutatu. He was Rowland’s personal choice as a correspondent in Zimbabwe with a roving commission on the continent – an appointment cutting across the role of Richard Hall, the paper’s Africa Correspondent. Nigel Hawkes, then Foreign News Editor, resigned that post in protest. The independent directors did not feel themselves called upon to adjudicate in that dispute since it was the editor’s own decision finally to hire Mutatu for a trial period, even though the NUJ chapel on the paper was unanimously opposed. Mutatu’s position on the paper is a strange one. He does not, in fact, figure on the paper’s editorial budget, being paid directly by Lonrho, which presumably debits the paper with Mutatu’s salary! This anomalous position is probably unique in the history of Fleet Street. Mutatu’s copy seldom appears in the paper: but he travels extensively around Africa, reporting more to Rowland directly than for the paper.

The three cases of O’Brien, Keegan and Mutatu illustrate the special difficulties under which Trelford has had to operate in dealing with the proprietor and with his own staff, and in exercising editorial independence. He has stood up staunchly to the pressures to remove the first two, even though he has diminished Keegan’s role: but he did give in to Rowland’s wish to engage Mutatu. Trelford is not without critics on his own staff who think that his ‘surrender’ on these two issues will lead, in time, to other compromises. But the majority of the staff and all of the independent directors take a different view of his role – admiring his toughness, courage, resilience and diplomatic skill in handling a tough and awkward proprietor, who, it is said, actually enjoys his company. It certainly called for considerable courage to make his stand over his Zimbabwe report – a stand which has won him 100 per cent support from the staff, even though some are puzzled by why he should have put himself in the position of agreeing to go to Zimbabwe in the first place and agreeing to Rowland’s arranging his interview with Mugabe. Why could he not have made his own appointment? And why did he not entrust the assignment to the Africa Correspondent?

As an old Africa hand (once editor of a newspaper in Malawi), Trelford remains deeply interested in the affairs of the continent. He felt unsure about the nature of the reports coming out of Zimbabwe, feeling that they might be exaggerated. He wanted to establish the facts for himself. Having come to a conclusion different from what he expected to find, he was determined to publish what he believed to be true, even though he knew it would mean a major row with Rowland.

Rowland is himself a major actor in Africa’s affairs. He likes boasting about his secret role, and claims that he acted as the go-between connecting President Samora Machel of Mozambique and President Kaunda of Zambia with Pretoria. One of his known special contacts is South Africa’s Director of Military Intelligence. But while he likes to talk privately of his exploits, he is, not unnaturally, keen that only those of his activities that will promote Lonrho’s interests should be published. Inevitably, his secret politicking cannot always be kept out of print. Having helped to bank-roll Joshua Nkomo for years during the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe, he was upset when Nkomo revealed in his autobiography* how Rowland had turned him out of one of his London hotels, where he had been allowed to live without charge, since the continuation of his friendship with Nkomo would damage his fledgling relations with Mugabe’s government. Rowland was embarrassed when Stephen Glover wrote a long, detailed and mainly accurate account in the Daily Telegraph of his links with Dr Jonas Savimbi, leader of the UNITA rebel movement in Angola. Journalists who interview Rowland are usually given long lectures about the justice of Savimbi’s cause and are encouraged to go and see the situation for themselves: sometimes Rowland will even offer to facilitate such trips. Since Savimbi is looked on with disfavour in most African countries, however, it was unhelpful to have Rowland’s close links with UNITA exposed, and for the world to learn how, when Savimbi was on a visit to London in 1980, a Lonrho director, Edward du Cann, hosted dinner parties and receptions for him at the Savoy and the Carlton Club.

Richard Hall recently got hold of an interesting account of Rowland’s thoroughly creditable attempt to persuade his old friend, President Nimeiry of Sudan, to tone down his policy of imposing Islamic law on his country. The story did not come from any Lonrho source. According to Hall’s report, Rowland had flown the Sudanese Minister of Presidential Affairs, Dr Mohammed Baha el-Din, to Nairobi, for talks with President Moi; and he had persuaded Moi to visit Khartoum in an effort to influence Nimeiry. Before printing this story the paper took the precaution of showing it to a Lonhro director and made sure that Rowland himself had seen it. Nothing was said by either to impugn the accuracy of the account, nor was any attempt made to stop it being printed. Yet the day after the story appeared an angry missile was sent by Cheapside protesting against inaccuracies: Moi had apparently made the journey to Khartoum in his own plane, and not in one of Lonrho’s. Why were this and other minor inaccuracies not pointed out beforehand? The only explanation is that Moi reacted angrily when he read the story, which caused Rowland to dissociate himself from it on the rather flimsy pretext of inaccuracies. Lonrho has large interests in Kenya, and Rowland’s close connections with President Moi are well-known. The episode illustrates how difficult it is for the editor of a Lonrho paper not to upset his proprietor, even if he takes the precaution of showing him a sensitive story before committing it to print.

So much for the background to the civil war between the Observer’s proprietor, the editor, the staff and the independent directors. What does it portend for the paper’s future? To recapitulate, the proprietor cannot dismiss the editor, except with the agreement of three of the independent directors, and he cannot get rid of them. He can sell the paper to anybody he chooses, but the new proprietor would have to accept the same constraints as those imposed on the sale of the paper to Rowland, who has said:

The one thing I haven’t undertaken with the Department of Trade is to hang on to it. I’m free to sell it. I have complete independence socially and financially. Nobody tells me what to do. That is my weakness and my strength.

Rowland feels no sense of responsibility to the ordinary directors on the Board, or to other Lonrho directors, and displays little concern for what his shareholders might think. It is a surprising fact that no shareholder has ever stood up to ask what Rowland thinks he is doing spending millions of pounds of their money on the Observer. Nor, apparently, has he faced any challenge from his other directors on Lonrho: this is less surprising since, with perhaps one exception, Edward du Cann, none is known for his independence. Du Cann is the influential chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers; his favoured role is to hold the ring, seeking compromise, soothing over the brusqueness of other Lonrho directors – ‘not the kind of people one would care to be seen out with,’ according to one independent director. The chairman of Lonrho, Duncan Sandys, is the once formidable Tory politician. He is now almost infirm and is seldom seen in either the House of Lords or in Cheapside: but his is a useful name to have on Lonrho’s Board. Within the inner conclave of Cheapside, Rowland’s senior colleagues like to speak of themselves in jest as a mafia, with Rowland as the godfather. Not one of the Lonrho directors is what one might describe as a natural Observer reader. The only exception is Rowland himself, who really does admire what the paper has stood for, especially in Africa.

Apart from Lonrho’s nominees, the Observer Board includes four directors representing Atlantic Richfield (Arco), the former owners of the paper who still retain a minority stake: these are Frank Stanton, former chief executive; Wally Nielsen, an old Africa hand, and Kenneth Harris, a former Observer staffer; and the formidable Arco chairman Bob Anderson – now old but still vigorous. They appear, at last, to be concerned about what Rowland is doing to the paper, but they seldom say much at Board meetings. Rowland himself hardly ever attends these meetings; he expresses confidence in the reports he gets from his nominees, and from Kenneth Harris in particular. Finally, there is a ghost from the past: the enigmatic figure of Lord Shawcross – the handsome Attorney-General in Attlee’s post-war government. Shawcross is now 82 years old, but because the age rule for directors has been waived for all the people on the Observer Board – why? – he remains an active member. What keeps him there? For the last fifty years he has obviously enjoyed being at the centre of the stage as a political and legal luminary, while managing to cross that stage, over the years, from the Left to the far Right. He appears resolved to stay in the limelight by stirring up controversy. It was he who invented the idea of ‘independent directors’ – a decision which now hangs like an albatross around his neck, since he feels they have all ‘turned against him’, even those he had personally recommended. At Board meetings he never tires of reiterating that his only desire is to see the Observer return to the great days of J.L. Garvin. He seems to forget that the ‘great JLG’ was an arch-appeaser before the war and that his editorship almost brought the paper to its knees. It ended in bitter controversy when the proprietor, Lord Astor, was forced to dismiss him because he insisted on editing the paper from his home in the country. Shawcross is now reported to be engaged in compiling a 60-page memorandum, the main purpose of which is to discredit Donald Trelford and to pave the way for his dismissal.

It is a puzzle to know what Rowland’s aims are in relation to the paper. He can sell it: but he really doesn’t want to do so. He wants it to promote his Northcliffian vision for Africa: but he can’t persuade the editor and his staff to participate in this. He wants to sack the editor and those on the staff he specially disapproves of: but he hasn’t the power. He wants to get rid of the independent directors: but he can’t. He would like to see the paper stop losing money since he prides himself on never having failed to make a profit out of anything he has owned: why then does he persist in interfering with wage settlements with the already extremely well-paid workers in a way which is causing the paper to lose even more money?

He behaves at the Observer as he does at Cheapside, ignoring and overriding his managers, making his own decisions, even though he had no previous experience of running a Fleet Street newspaper. He affects a contempt for the way Fleet Street’s papers have been managed in the past. When he was recently faced with a demand by machine-minders for a substantial increase, he gave way even though his managers on the paper had strongly advised against his doing so. Not only did this add almost £500,000 a year to a wage bill of £18 million, but he carelessly upset the system of differentials in the Works. The immediate result was a strike, which cost the paper another £400,000. In consequence of these initiatives of his, the paper faces an additional loss of £1 million this year. When the NUJ chapel came forward with their annual demand for an increase (which worked out, on average, at about 9 per cent), Rowland’s managers (not the Observer managers, who were again bypassed) were instructed to refuse to pay them a penny more until the paper’s circulation had reached 850,000 (it currently stands at just under 814,000). But after the NUJ had been provoked by this peremptory refusal, they were offered a week later half of what they had asked for – and were told that they were expected to get the paper’s circulation up to the target figure of 850,000.

One view that has been put forward is that Rowland wants to bring the paper’s finances to such a state that he can argue the case for the removal of the editor as his condition for putting in more money, in the belief that, faced with such an alternative, a majority of the independent directors could be persuaded to give way. In mid-June he demanded the replacement of the editor on the grounds of the paper’s losses – estimated for the year at £1.5 million, of which two-thirds was directly the result of his own decision to give in to the extravagant demands of the machine-minders. One is told that the Arco directors have been critical of the decision: but Anderson and his colleagues do not seem to have confronted Rowland at the last Board meeting. Rowland can give the impression of acting entirely intuitively, erratically, and often out of simple pique. He is quick to change his mind. Today he wants to sack the editor; tomorrow he talks about him in glowing terms, while still looking for ways to sack him. He threatens to cut the fees of independent directors, but then does nothing about it. He complains about the losses of the paper, and then ignores his managers in awarding entirely unwarranted wage rises. He threatens to sell the paper, but privately insists that nothing will ever induce him to give it up. Small wonder that members of the Board and of the editorial staff say that the paper is on the road to ruin. No paper can be run well when the proprietor and the editorial staff are at war. Although the paper’s circulation has gone up by 22 per cent under Trelford’s editorship – from 664,978 at the end of 1975 to 813,772 in March 1984 – its readership (i.e. the number of people who read the paper as opposed to those who buy it) has gone down. Alarmingly, the fall is especially marked among the under-35 age group. Neither the proprietor nor the Board appear to have any policy for the paper’s future. It is difficult to suppose that the Observer has any future at all so long as it remains under its present proprietorship, and there is no sign that Rowland will agree to sell it to an acceptable buyer. The faint hope that the Arco directors will dig their heels in seems to be fading.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from this thoroughly shabby affair it is the need for some better way of protecting the public interest than what is at present on offer. Responsibility for the Observer’s fate lies firmly with the Monopolies Commission, which, having ruled that the paper’s sale to Lonrho was against the public interest, then proposed conditions that can’t work. Their fudged conclusion was approved (with some extremely inadequate safeguards) by the then President of the Board of Trade. There can surely be no public confidence in the way in which the national press is being put up for auction to a bunch of tycoons, or in the entirely illusory protection offered by the Monopolies Commission and the Board of Trade.

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