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“Sad”, “disrespectful” and rather “un-Guardian” are some of the words used by Guardian insiders to describe former editor Alan Rusbridger’s defenestration on Friday.
But there also appears to be widespread acceptance that his move from editor of The Guardian to become chair of its owner, The Scott Trust, was problematical.
The end came for Rusbridger as The Scott Trust’s scheduled meeting dragged on into a second day on Friday.
Rusbridger (a member of the trust) was due to take over from Dame Liz Forgan as chair in September.
The part-time job carries a salary of £53,000, but also a good deal of power. The trust appoints the editor of The Guardian (and, in extreme circumstances, has the power to sack them). And it also signs off on big decisions concerning the future of The Guardian and Observer titles
It was the Scott Trust, for instance, which in 2009 decided against a proposal to close the Observer. And it is the trust which will have the final say on Guardian editor Katharine Viner and chief executive David Pemsel’s plan to reverse operating losses currently running at nearly £60m a year.
Viner and Pemsel both sit on the trust and opposed Rusbridger stepping up to the body.
They both evidently feared that Rusbridger could be a block to whatever changes they have in store. These include 250 staff cuts (including 100 journalists) and a possible reversal of the free “open journalism” model pioneered by Rusbridger.
There was no vote on Friday, but Rusbridger came to his own decision that it was better to walk away than fight for his job.
Viner and Rusbridger both addressed the trust separately. Press Gazette understands that Viner and Pemsel were not in the room when the issue of Rusbridger’s succession was discussed by the body.
The sequence of announcements about his departure told its own story about the dischord at the top of The Guardian.
First out of the gates was Rusbridger himself, with a direct message to staff sent over the heads of Viner, the Guardian Media Group board and the trust itself at around midday.
Making the point that Guardian losses have only escalated since he left, he said: .”..much has changed in the year since I stepped down. All newspapers – and many media organisations beyond – have been battered by turbulent and economic forces that were difficult to foresee last summer.”
And responding directly to those who blame him for the financial position, rather than Guardian Media Group chairman Neil Berkett and chief executive David Pemsel, he said: “On my appointment to the Scott Trust job in November 2014 the chair of GMG, Neil Berkett, was kind enough to say publicly: ‘Alan has set the standard for journalistic leadership in the digital age. His appointment to lead The Scott Trust coincides with rapidly rising readership, continued innovation and secure finances at the Guardian. His successor will inherit a global media organisation in very strong health and with clear prospects for further growth.'”
Making it clear that this was not an amicable parting of the ways, he said: “Kath and David clearly believe they would like to plot a route into the the future with a new chair and I understand their reasoning.”
He also thanked those who have “quietly emailed their support in the past few weeks”.
In contrast to the cascade of positive Twitter messages which accompanied his departure as editor a year ago, there was silence on social media from Guardian journalists on Friday and during the weekend over his exit from the trust.
The Scott Trust statement praising Rusbridger’s “immeasurable” contribution to The Guardian came out 45 minutes later. Later in the afternoon Viner emailed staff to pay her own tribute to Rusbridger as a “towering figure” to whom “we all owe…a huge debt of gratitude”.
Rusbridger declined on offer to stay on as a member of the Scott Trust.
Forgan said in a note to staff: “I want to add that, on a personal level, I am saddened by Alan’s decision to stand down from the Trust. I can honestly say that the twelve years I spent working with him were amongst the happiest and most fulfilling of my professional life.”
Some Guardian journalists clearly believed Rusbridger could not move from editor of the paper to chair of the Scott Trust because of the governance issues it raised (in the same way that chief executives of public companies should not move to the oversight role of chairman).
And there appears to be a widespread understanding that Viner could not “plough her own furrow”, as one put it, with a “big obstacle there in the shape of Alan”.
Rusbridger has made it clear that as an editor he always embraced change, rather than resisted it. But nonetheless, Viner clearly appears to have felt that she and Pemsel would not have a sufficiently free hand to enact their plan to turn The Guardian around with Rusbridger in place.
The seeds of Rusbridger’s downfall were planted back in November 2014, when it was announced that he would step down as editor and succeed Liz Forgan as Scott Trust chair. It seemed to some like a cosy backroom deal and it is notable that the Scott Trust said on Friday that this time the chairman vacancy will be filled through an “open and transparent process”.
Rusbridger favoured then deputy editor Janine Gibson as his successor and reportedly did all he could to help her get the job. Instead, Viner won the staff hustings ballot with 438 votes with Gibson in third place on 175. Viner took the top job and Gibson now edits the UK edition of Buzzfeed.
One inside source said that Rusbridger’s exit shows the title “has a commercial ruthlessness that it didn’t have before”.
There appears to be a mood of shock among Guardian staff at the manner of Rusbridger’s departure – if not surprise that it happened.
Newsnight editor Ian Katz (a former Guardian deputy editor who is believed to have got down to the last two in Guardian editor interviews) said on Twitter: “Whatever you think of @arusbridger becoming trust chair, v sad that his Guardian career ends like this. He did more for paper than anyone.”
Linking to the report of his exit statement on Buzzfeed, Rusbridger himself said on Twitter: “sad news, but all good wishes to my former colleagues…”
Picture: Guardian website report of Rusbridger’s departure as editor a year ago, pictured with Kath Viner.