A daily newspaper cannot publish for 200 years without getting some things wrong. This one has made its share of mistakes.
There will always be errors of news judgment given the nature of the work. Tight deadlines meant the sinking of the Titanic was relegated to a small spot on page 9 in 1912; errors of scientific understanding resulted in a 1927 article that promoted the virtues of asbestos, and others in the late 1970s that warned of a looming ice age.
But the most noticeable missteps stem not from the news pages but from the editorial column. For it is here that readers find out what the paper thinks about the great issues of the day. And it is here that mistakes are inked most indelibly into history, whether they relate to suffrage, reform or, most notably in recent years, the debate over Brexit.
To err is human. But making the wrong call is both inevitable and painful. To see why the Guardian thinks the way it does, it is useful to start with the interests it originally sought to advance. The Manchester Guardian was born of moderate radicalism, and began life in 1821 as a mouthpiece for male middle-class political reform.
In the years after the 1832 Reform Act, upwardly mobile men were enfranchised and the paper steadily lost its radical edge. When revolution convulsed Europe in the middle of the 19th century, the Manchester Guardian had little sympathy for the insurrectionists. “Nationalism was associated with democracy in 1848,” wrote David Ayerst in his history of the newspaper, “and democracy was still suspect in the Guardian circle.” The paper’s leader column declared support for martial law in Ireland to quell political turbulence as famine stalked the land. Its cold-hearted analysis was that Ireland could only feed itself if freed from its dependence on a few crops, and that required capital that would not be forthcoming without political stability.
Fear of the mob dominated this period of the Manchester Guardian’s thinking. The paper advocated political reform – extending the franchise and promoting secret ballots – but it wanted to limit voting to male ratepayers. The call was for a property-based democracy, sound money and rational government. The Manchester Guardian wanted no part in the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history. It was also a proudly imperialist paper. When the Indian mutiny broke out in 1857 – a rebellion acknowledged as the greatest challenge to any European power in the 19th century – the leader column on 26 September of that year thundered with racism that England must retain “unfaltering confidence in our right to rule over the native population by virtue of inherent superiority”.
Victorian liberalism was beset by double standards: while Asians could not be trusted with self-determination, Americans could be. More than 150 years ago the paper believed that the southern US states had the right to secede. It suspected that a free Confederacy would prosper and claimed it was as entitled to freedom as the Hungarians were when they had broken away from Austria in 1849. The Guardian reasoned that the breakup of the US would hasten the end of slavery, which it despised. This view was shared by William Gladstone of the Liberal party, who would be prime minister four times.
The paper’s support for the Confederacy led to a loathing of Abraham Lincoln that today seems petty and shameful. For the Guardian of the 1860s, Lincoln was a fraud who treated emancipation of the slaves as negotiable because it stood in the way of US unity. In 1862, reflecting on his election the previous year, the paper said “it is impossible not to feel that it was an evil day both for America and the world”. Three years later an editorial on the president’s assassination scaled new heights of anti-Lincoln mania. “Of his rule we can never speak except as a series of acts abhorrent to every true notion of constitutional right and human liberty,” the paper wrote, before tactfully adding: “It is doubtless to be regretted that he had not the opportunity of vindicating his good intentions.”
Under the editorship of CP Scott, the paper moved from the right of the Liberal party to the left, not so much following Gladstone as scouting ahead of him. From the late 1880s the editorial line is more radical and the paper’s politics feel more familiar. Scott supported the movement for women’s suffrage, but was critical of any suffragette direct action. In his leader he wrote: “The really ludicrous position is that Mr Lloyd George is fighting to enfranchise 7 million women and the militants are smashing unoffending people’s windows and breaking up benevolent societies’ meetings in a desperate effort to prevent him.”
When Arthur Balfour, then Britain’s foreign secretary, promised 104 years ago to help establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, his words changed the world. The Guardian of 1917 supported, celebrated and could even be said to have helped facilitate the Balfour declaration. Scott was a supporter of Zionism and this blinded him to Palestinian rights. In 1917 he wrote a leader on the day the Balfour declaration was announced, in which he dismissed any other claim to the Holy Land, saying: “The existing Arab population of Palestine is small and at a low stage of civilisation.” Whatever else can be said, Israel today is not the country the Guardian foresaw or would have wanted.
Under Scott, the Manchester Guardian made its name in foreign affairs, notably opposing the second Boer war against popular opinion. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were shot dead in Sarajevo in June 1914, Scott saw few signs that the continent would be disturbed, let alone that a world war would follow. The Guardian leader said: “It is not to be supposed that the death of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand will have any immediate or salient effect on the politics of Europe.”
The truth is that Scott, like all prognosticators, could only view the historical process in the rear-view mirror. He couldn’t foretell the future. The Manchester Guardian’s long-serving editor would have known that previous predictions had been superseded in ways he could not have foreseen. He understood that the growth of technology and society’s increasing ability to dominate nature meant that societies that were scientifically effective would dominate societies that were not. But no one could know the different set of priorities later generations would have.
Having been a strong supporter of the Liberal party in the 19th century, the Manchester Guardian warmed to the Labour party in the 20th, while never losing its Liberal connections. Scott spent much of the last three decades of his life calling for Labour and the old Liberal party to cooperate and save the country from Conservative domination, a cause that is still very much alive today in the paper.
In 1945, a new editor, Alfred Powell Wadsworth, erred in declaring that “the chances of Labour sweeping the country … are pretty remote” and called in an editorial for the “most fruitful coalition in these times: a Liberal-Labour government”. The paper looked badly wrongfooted by the Labour landslide.
Almost all the Guardian’s election leaders since the second world war have endorsed either Labour or the Liberals, and sometimes both. The exception came in 1951, when AP Wadsworth’s dislike of Labour’s health minister, Aneurin Bevan, saw the paper back Churchill’s Tories.
Editors do make a difference: under Wadsworth the Manchester Guardian took a surprisingly conservative view of the foundation of the National Health Service. While supporting the changes as a “great step forward”, the Guardian feared that the state providing welfare “risks an increase in the proportion of the less gifted”. Alastair Hetherington, a strait-laced military man who edited the Guardian in the swinging 60s, earned the distinction of being in charge when the first “fuck” appeared in a British or American newspaper after a jury in 1960 decided Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not obscene. During the trial, Hetherington had gone to great lengths to ensure that Guardian news reports did not print swearwords used in open court, only for an opinion piece to do so.
From the early 70s, the Guardian’s leaders alighted on consumerism and overpopulation as existential crises. A 1970 editorial wondered how, if the world’s population doubled, a decent standard of living could be maintained. Such Malthusian fears have not been realised. When the facts change, the Guardian changes its mind. In 1982 the paper thought that a windmill to generate electricity on “every British hilltop would be an environmental disaster”. It would not say that today.
And then there is Europe. The postwar Guardian had been a reliably European newspaper. The paper looked favourably on joining the Common Market from the late 1950s. The Guardian was running, it felt, with the tide of history: so much so that when the UK did not join the euro in 2003, the leader column described it as “the biggest setback to the pro-European cause for a generation”.
The UK’s place within the European club had been secured by an in/out referendum in 1975 called by Harold Wilson, who wanted the electorate to settle a question that divided the Labour party. The Guardian found itself siding with a small pro-European band in Labour, as well as almost all Tories and the Liberal party. On Thursday 5 June 1975, in a leader headlined: “A vote for the next century”, the paper called for voters to endorse Britain’s membership of the Common Market in that day’s referendum to ensure the country would be “safer and more prosperous”.
Since then, referendums have become, much to the paper’s displeasure, an established part of our constitution, used as a way to stamp democratic legitimacy on to controversial ideas and as a tool of party management. The Guardian, aware of the historical significance of such votes, had got into a habit of telling readers how they ought to cast their ballot on the morning of the vote. On the day of referendums in 1998 the leader column suggested voters in Northern Ireland back the Good Friday Agreement and asked Londoners to back a mayoralty. In 2014, on the day of the Scottish independence referendum, it urged Scots to stick with the union.
No country had ever voted to leave the European Union before. The Guardian had been clear in the run-up to 2016’s Brexit vote that the electorate ought to vote to stay in. But on the morning of 23 June 2016, the paper did not tell readers how it thought they should vote. Instead, on a vote that would define the country’s role in the next century, the leader said: “The UK will, gradually, put the tensions of the campaign behind it, however painful they have been, and start instead to focus on its future.”
History had other ideas. Perhaps the Guardian’s unwavering belief in the strength of the EU’s case was a source of complacency. If so, it was not the only paper to suffer such delusions. As Julie Firmstone of Leeds University put it in 2016: “Most disappointingly, whilst the leave papers pulled out all the stops on polling day, only the Mirror clearly called for a vote to remain.”
While the Guardian leader column is now just one voice among many, it still represents the only long-range institutional view. It represents not any one person’s belief but an attempt to distil values that have evolved across the centuries. The column tries to keep in mind past mistakes and to proceed with humility. No one knows the verdicts history will hand down on the opinions that appear obvious today.
Source : www.theguardian.com