Why Alan Rusbridger had no choice but to quit The Guardian

Resignation has released some of tension that has built within the loss-making operation

Some believe Alan Rusbridger has been scapegoated. Photograph: Getty Images

Some believe Alan Rusbridger has been scapegoated. Photograph: Getty Images

 

In the end, Alan Rusbridger had little choice but to resile from becoming chair of the Scott Trust. Having been appointed in late 2014 to occupy one of the most powerful roles within Guardian Media Group this September, The Guardian’s former editor had encountered fierce opposition.

By Thursday evening, it looked inevitable. Although a meeting of the Scott Trust board had broken up without being able to decide on his future, enough of its members, including Katharine Viner, his successor as Guardian editor, and David Pemsel, GMG’s chief executive, did not want him back as chair. He could either concede or trigger a damaging public battle.

The way he stepped down, in an elegant yet crisply forceful note to the Guardian’s staff, was typical of their editor of 20 years. It combined grace in acceding to Ms Viner and Mr Pemsel’s wishes with a distinct note of defiance. He made clear that he had not been the only optimist in the building by quoting how Neil Berkett, GMG’s chairman, once praised him.

The Guardian’s plunge into operating losses of £58.6 million (€75m) in the year to March, together with Ms Viner and Mr Pemsel’s joint plan to cut 250 jobs, turned Mr Rusbridger’s return into a contentious issue. Several of GMG’s business executives, and enough of the senior journalists to matter, thought he should stay away.

Scapegoated

Others, though, believed Mr Rusbridger was being unfairly maligned and scapegoated. He had not been the only vocal leader of the Guardian’s strategy of digital expansion and keeping its content free, spurning any paywall in favour of the “open web”. Nor had he been the only person hiring: about half of the 480 new employees since 2012 were on the commercial side.

By resigning, he has released some of the tension that had been building in the Guardian’s King’s Cross head office for months. He also relieves the GMG board from a worrying prospect: not only would he have led the trust, which is GMG’s sole shareholder, but the trust’s chair has the right to attend GMG board meetings.

Like many public companies in similar difficulties, the first instinct of the new boss is publicly to ditch what his predecessor did. In Mr Pemsel’s case, this is trickier because he was deputy chief executive during the years in question. But neither he nor the new editor wanted Mr Rusbridger to quibble with, or obstruct, a tough restructuring.

Gritted teeth

Mr Rusbridger indicated that he would have behaved himself. “It is surely obvious to anyone that changed circumstances will demand dramatically changed solutions,” he wrote.

He added, through what sounded like gritted teeth: “Kath and David clearly believe they would like to plot a route into the future with a new chair and I understand their reasoning.”

With that, he suggested that his role as principal of Lady Margaret Hall, an Oxford college, would be a pleasant alternative to the “force 12 digital hurricane” he leaves behind, having turned down the offer of remaining on the trust without chairing it: “I have a fantastically interesting life in Oxford. I will miss you all,” he wrote.

Good luck without me, was the unwritten codicil. You will need it.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

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