Peter Preston reflects on 50 years of triumph and disaster at The Guardian and Observer

Fifty years after joining The Guardian, Peter Preston is better placed than anyone to put the paper’s recent dramas into perspective.

This is not to say that mass expansion into the US and Australia, breaking global stories such as Prism and Wikileaks and boasting the second biggest news websites in the UK aren’t significant achievements.

It’s just that, for The Guardian, those twin impostors triumph and disaster have never been far apart. Over the years, the paper has had a habit of making, as well as breaking, news.

In his time at the paper, Preston has seen it change name (from the Manchester Guardian), move offices on numerous occasions, switch print format, turn digital-first and be within hours of merging with The Times.

Preston’s own story has its own fair helping of drama. Having survived polio at the age of ten and been “written off”, Preston got a place at Oxford. It was, he admits, “a bit of a surprise to everybody”.

At university, his academic work suffered due to his commitments as editor of the Cherwell student newspaper. But the prestigious appointment did no harm to his career. Preston joined the Liverpool Daily Post on a traineeship after graduating and stayed for three years.

From there, the Manchester Guardian was only one place he wanted to be. “It was the paper we’d taken at home in North Leicestershire,” he says. “It must have been one of the three copies in the area, but it’s the paper that I’d always read.”

Preston joined in June 1963, when he was 25 years old. He enjoyed stints as a reporter, foreign correspondent, education correspondent, diary columnist, features editor and night editor.

Then, in 1975, Alastair Hetherington announced plans to step down after 21 years. The “pulsating papal quasi election” that followed came down to Preston and his close friend John Cole (later of the BBC).

Preston won and the friendship endured. “And then we were into 20 tumultuous years.”

Preston’s first challenge was to oversee the paper’s move from Gray’s Inn Road to Farringdon Road.

Moving offices may be fairly straigh forward today, but at the time, when this transition included moving the paper’s printing floor in less than 48 hours, it was “the world’s most horrendous nightmare”

In his time as editor, the paper avoided a proposed merger with The Times at the 11th hour, maintained circulation (peaking at over 500,000 a day at one point), survived the launch of The Independent and Rupert Murdoch’s price wars, and pioneered the daily supplement, with the launch of G2.

But, Preston says, every editor has to be prepared “to get involved in some really bloody awful situations”.

In 1983, Foreign and Commonwealth Office clerk Sarah Tisdall was jailed for leaking details of cruise missile deployment plans to The Guardian.

The paper initially won its argument not to reveal its source to the government, which had filed a legal action against it. But the judge’s decision was immediately overturned and The Guardian did hand over the leaked documents.

As editor, Preston took full responsibility and has since expressed regrets over his compliance with the order.

“There was an awful lot of angst about that. And it happens all the time – you do something and you can be hung out to dry. It’s quite wrong to think that the press will automatically support you, because some of them will and some of them won’t. So I got a good pasting over that.”

Despite the criticism, Preston remained as Guardian editor for 12 years beyond that before handing over the reins to his deputy Alan Rusbridger in 1995.

Looking to the future, what does Preston make of the “digital-first” strategy introduced by his successor?

“We now move into an area where frankly nobody knows. Alan, very sensibly, has said throughout all of this, ‘nobody knows where we’re going’. Not we The Guardian – but where newspapers generally are going. And I think that’s totally sensible,” he says.

“It’s five and a half years since I was sitting next to Alan at a Society of Editors’ conference, and he was showing me something very excitedly that he thought was terrific – and that was the first iPhone. And two years on and there’s the first iPad.”

Preston believes that the future of newspapers is not safe on tablets or smartphones alone because technology is in a constant state of flux.

“Anybody who says they really know where newspapers fit into this is certainly wrong,” he says.

“I have been saying for a very long time that print advertising and the discipline of producing editions for a readership which is used to that is not something that is going to vanish in 25 seconds. It is not going to be over tomorrow.

“But if you go back four or five years you can find various gurus saying precisely that.

“For one thing, there are a lot of people in the world who still like newspapers. And take newspapers, and read newspapers, as well as tablets. Often it’s not either/or. It’s both.”

In addition to his work at Guardian News and Media (Preston remains an Observer columnist), he has also played a leading role in the International Press Institute. He joined after becoming interested in the “predicament of journalists in hostile situations with the government and the law moving against you”.

Formerly international chairman, Preston remains an active member of the IPI and recently led a mission to help journalists imprisoned in Turkey.

He remains concerned by the plight of international journalists and regularly attempts to put this country’s press regulation debate into an international perspective.

“The whole thing has gone through almost with no attention to what impact it will have abroad,” he says.

“And yet the only good thing about a Royal Charter is that I can’t see Robert Mugabe being able to invent something called a Royal Charter. But you never can tell.”

Despite being associated with a newspaper group more sympathetic to the view of press victims than some of its peers, Preston has made clear his issues with the Government’s propositions for regulation.

On the Press Complaints Commission, which Preston had a role in setting up, he admits the need for change, but is concerned about journalists having too many guidelines.

He says: “It’s like if you’ve ever been on a job with people from the BBC. It’s a difficult job and you’re looking at the BBC guidelines for the way journalists should act.

“You’re not talking about a sheet of paper which is relatively clear – you’re talking about people carrying blinking files and books and subsections and bundles of this and bundles of that.

“And that’s a problem with where we’ve got to. And after 50 years, I’m a bit depressed about that. But perhaps the next 50 years will be better.”

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