“What We Got Wrong: The Guardian’s Worst Errors of Judgment Over 200 Years”

From a post on the guardian.com by Randeep Ramesh headlined “What We Got Wrong: the Guardian’s worst errors of judgment over 200 years”:

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.”…

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….

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 paper’s support for the Confederacy led to a loathing of Abraham Lincoln that today seems petty and shameful.

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….

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….

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….

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”….

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….

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.

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