Media Headliner: Mulholland carries torch for journalistic quality

The editor of the relaunched Observer tells Alasdair Reid why the power of journalism will be key on any delivery platform.

It's not often you come across someone, certainly not in the media, so keen to invoke the spirit of 91. Not 1991 (the first Gulf War, grunge goes mainstream, Tim Berners-Lee gives birth to the internet); nor even 1891.

No. Spend any length of time in the company of John Mulholland, the editor of The Observer, and you'll find yourself back in 1791. 1791 was the year in which the French Revolution started to go horribly wrong; in which Mozart, despite dying fashionably young, failed to go mainstream; and in which there were attempts to revolutionise communication at a distance by mechanising semaphore.

Most importantly, though, from Mulholland's point of view, it was the year in which The Observer first hit the streets. You risk handing hostages to fortune when you revamp a newspaper, aiming to make it fit for the 21st century, by reminding everyone that, as a child of the 18th century, it really is rather long in the tooth.

But Mulholland, clearly a student of the past, has done precisely that - and this rather risky branding manoeuvre has attracted a smattering of applause, not least from the advertising market.

It's also true that he has flirted with destiny as far as The Observer is concerned - and won. In September, he came within a whisker of historical infamy as the man at the helm as the world's oldest Sunday newspaper looked as if it might go under. After a management review, it was handed a reprieve - albeit in a slimmed down operation.

On Sunday, it relaunched in a new four-section format (main paper, newsprint sport section, glossy magazine, quality newsprint review section) backed by a rather witty online video and TV commercial lampooning the nature of the rolling-news information overload we're all subjected to these days. The campaign invites us to use The Observer to "pause, review and reflect". And, of course, Andrew Rawnsley's revelations about Gordon Brown's supposedly robust managerial style launched the new Observer with a bang.

The verdict from interested onlookers has been largely positive. "The relaunch is driven by and rooted in the paper's understanding of its audience," Vanessa Clifford, a managing partner at Mindshare, says. "There's a clear editorial rationale here. It's all coherent and makes sense - and there's a definite feel that they've spent a lot of time and care on this."

The paper hopes it can find a viable ink-on-paper role in the internet age as a source of insightful summary, commentary and analysis of the week's news underpinned, of course, by Mulholland's desire to reignite our enthusiasm for the paper as a product of the European Enlightenment. "It's important to preserve The Observer as a truly liberal voice in this country - one that is open to opinion from both the left and the right in a truly broad church style," he urges.

He talks a good game - and it's true that we're suckers for an intellectual argument when it's delivered in an educated Irish accent. We'd call it a brogue if that didn't convey something laid-back. Mulholland is anything but laid-back. He speaks with a precision and an economy that is (you begin to suspect) clarity of thinking made manifest; and you can hear him itching to answer your questions ("yes ... yes") before you're even halfway through asking them.

It has to be said, too, that there's something terribly old-fashioned (refreshingly old-fashioned but old-fashioned nonetheless) about an editor talking unrelentingly, and with such apparent faith, about the power of journalism.

Whether this faith is enough is open to question - and the circulation numbers are just nasty. The Observer's most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations figure was 354,565, down 17 per cent year on year. It has lost 110,000 copies from its headline figure (including bulks) since Mulholland became the editor in January 2008.

He's a loyal company man, who's been at Guardian News & Media since the early 90s. He spent seven years on The Guardian before becoming the deputy editor of The Observer under Roger Alton in September 1998, stepping up almost ten years later when Alton moved on. So he knows more than most about the "liberal journalism that's part of the paper's DNA".

He also says he relishes the challenges posed not just by the recession but by the digital revolution. "Challenging times force you to be innovative, fleet-footed and as open as possible to new ideas," he says. "It's about quality of journalism, whatever platform it happens to be on."

Clearly, he's a supreme optimist as well as an enthusiastic historian - but there are those who argue that The Observer's chances of survival are linked not to journalistic quality but to cruder calculations. There are those who believe, for instance, that if Alexander Lebedev manages to buy The Independent titles, the first thing he'll do is to close the Sunday.

That, at a stroke, would make The Observer a more viable long-term proposition. So surely Mulholland is secretly praying for this outcome? Not a bit of it, he retorts, revealing again his commitment not just to an idealistic world view but to the dictates of common decency.

"Even if (the Independent on Sunday editor) John Mullin wasn't a friend, that's not something I'd ever like to see. I want to see as many newspapers employing as many people as possible in this country. I'd never wish for the closure of a newspaper," he concludes.


Age: 47

Lives: Stoke Newington, North London

Family: A daughter

Interests outside work: My daughter, Latin America, Spanish, discovering

Most cherished possession: My daughter

Last book read: Andrew Rawnsley's The End Of The Party about New Labour 2001-2009. Simply superb

Professional role models: David Astor, legendary editor of The Observer; Vincent Browne, trouble-making Irish editor and broadcaster

Motto: Tus maith, leath na h-oibre. It's an Irish language phrase meaning "a good start is half the work".