Guardian leaders clash over 'who calls the shots'

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Katharine Viner and Annette Thomas
Katharine Viner and Annette Thomas

The Guardian’s two most senior executives are engaged in a power struggle that colleagues fear may force a change of leadership, The Telegraph can reveal.

The editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, and Annette Thomas, the chief executive, have repeatedly clashed over control of the finances and direction of the Guardian during the pandemic, according to multiple insiders.

One said: “It boils down to who calls the shots.”

Relations between the women are said to have broken down to such an extent that senior staff in both commercial and editorial departments believe one of them may have to leave unless a peace deal can be brokered by the Scott Trust, the £1bn endowment which owns the Guardian.

Ms Viner, 50, and Ms Thomas, 56, are said to be at loggerheads over how to build on a better-than-expected financial performance for the year to March 2021.

Despite declines in print circulation and advertising sales due to lockdowns, turnover came in roughly flat at £225m as online donations and subscriptions increased to make up a feared shortfall of more than £25m.

Last summer the publisher also announced 180 job cuts including 70 in editorial, and closed a string of weekend supplements, amid warnings to staff that “we face unsustainable annual losses in future years unless we take decisive action”.

The Guardian has reported that combination of cost cuts and stable revenues meant that overall cash outflow last year was “only” £16m. That compares with £29m in the year before the pandemic. With the support of the returns from the Scott Trust’s endowment, the Guardian believes it can afford negative cash flow of up to £30m annually.

Last year’s performance has prompted calls from the newsroom, led by Ms Viner, and National Union of Journalists representatives for renewed investment. Ms Thomas, who joined the Guardian two weeks before the first lockdown from a career in scientific publishing, is understood to have resisted such demands, arguing that greater financial discipline is required to deliver stability.

In a recent speech to a media industry conference, Ms Thomas said “we have quality content in spades” and “the job at hand is to now go further by strengthening the growing elements of our business and learning the right lessons from other digital industries about the capabilities that we need”.

Allies argue that under Ms Viner’s predecessor, Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editorial department had too much sway. He embarked on a series of costly expansion projects that included the purchase of bespoke “Berliner” presses amid the decline of print circulation and plans for a members’ club close to the Guardian's headquarters at King's Cross in London.

Alan Rusbridger
Alan Rusbridger

Following his departure in 2015 cash outflows topped £72m and prompted the Scott Trust to back a three-year turnaround plan under Ms Viner and Ms Thomas’s predecessor as chief executive, David Pemsel. Ms Viner’s supporters point out that she jointly led an effort that brought the Guardian back from the brink of a financial crisis.

Newsroom rumours of her poor relationship with Ms Thomas has stoked suggestions of a culture clash. The chief executive, an American-born neuroscientist who worked her way up in scientific publishing before making an unusual switch to news, has not only had to get to grips with Fleet Street but also the Guardian’s unique characteristics as the only left-leaning broadsheet.

The editor-in-chief is elected by a vote of journalists and has historically had authority over business as well as editorial decisions. Ms Viner is viewed as a remote figure in the Guardian newsroom and has been closely associated with its decision not to erect a paywall.

One insider said: “It’s definitely been tough for Annette. The Guardian is an unusual organisation and joining it in lockdown can’t have been easy.”

The Scott Trust is due to appoint a new chairman in the next two months, who will be expected to navigate a route beyond the hostilities. The acting chairman, Ole Jacob Sunde, chairman of the Scandinavian media group Schibsted, is rated as favourite for the role.

The Guardian declined to comment.

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