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Director of The Guardian quits in protest at 'imperial' editor's choice of chief executive

·5-min read
Anders Jensen - Hans Berggren
Anders Jensen - Hans Berggren

The Guardian is embroiled in a renewed governance row after a director quit in protest at the influence wielded by its editor to ensure her choice was installed as chief executive.

Anders Jensen is understood to have resigned from the board of Guardian Media Group (GMG) just two years into his tenure because he was alarmed by the standards of scrutiny during the recruitment of Anna Bateson as chief executive.

Sources said Jensen, chief executive of the Scandinavian streaming service Viaplay, was unhappy with the influence of editor Katharine Viner, who had pushed for GMG to appoint Bateson.

A spokesman for Jensen said: "Out of respect for The Guardian as a newspaper, we will not comment on the internal proceedings of its board, which Anders has indeed chosen to leave.”

The appointment of Bateson is understood to have frustrated some senior staff, who felt interim chief executive Keith Underwood had already proven he was better suited to the role.

Bateson, the head of an online hair dye brand, previously worked at The Guardian's chief customer officer and was overlooked for the chief executive role two years ago. This time she was appointed ahead of Underwood, as well as Katie Vanneck-Smith, a co-founder of the “slow news” start-up Tortoise, among other candidates.

She will now take charge of GMG, the corporate structure owned by The Scott Trust that publishes The Guardian newspaper.

The revelations are the latest top-level tensions at the publisher after Viner clashed with the previous chief executive Annette Thomas. The pair had battled over how best to create a brighter financial future for the business and where power to decide should lie. Viner prevailed and Thomas left after less than 15 months with nearly £800,000 in severance pay.

Anna Bateson
Anna Bateson

An industry insider said: "It is an organisation that has seemed to have suspended the type of corporate governance practice that it would argue other companies should engage in because of a misguided view of an imperial editorship that ranges much further than simple editorial independence."

The Guardian's structure hands the editor holds a powerful position. While the chief executive reports to the GMG board, Viner reports to the Scott Trust, which ultimately owns The Guardian and holds its purse strings, including a £1.3bn investment fund which has underwritten the publisher’s financial misadventures.

After succeeding the long-standing Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in 2015, Viner has faced the challenge of shoring up the finances, which were afflicted with deep annual losses following her predecessor's expansionist reign, which included a costly push into the US.

Such was the concern over the parlous state of The Guardian's finances that prompted 250 job cuts that Rusbridger was effectively blocked from becoming chairman of the Scott Trust in 2016.

His departure was an opportunity for The Guardian to not only exert its global influence, but to do so with a degree of financial discipline that would allow it to become a sustainable digital news organisation akin to The New York Times.

Opinions are mixed on whether the organisation has reached its goal. GMG published its best results since 2008 in July. Annual revenues were up 13pc to £255.8m and profits climbed nearly four-fold to £11.7m, as more than a million people made a monthly contribution of at least a pound through its reader donation strategy.

While The Guardian is also testing a paywall in a marked departure from its previous position, it still lags the progress made by its biggest transatlantic rival. The New York Times recorded revenues of $2bn (£1.8bn) for the year to December, with profits of $268m. Subscription sales alone reached $1.4bn.

 Annette Thomas - David Levene
Annette Thomas - David Levene

The appointment of Thomas was seen by senior staff as a way of helping the Guardian narrow the commercial gap with rivals without jeopardising its editorial independence.

However, her efforts to burnish the commercial return were met with resistance by Viner.

One point of conflict centred on a request by Thomas to make data and insight analysts work closer with the commercial teams. Viner is understood to have vetoed the plan over concerns it would compromise editorial independence.

Sources said that attempts were made by the GMG board to reconcile the differences between the pair using an executive coach but Viner eventually stopped attending the sessions.

Following Thomas's departure in June last year, the Scott Trust launched a review of the complex structure that contributed to the tensions between her and Viner.

It concluded that the GMG needed more news media experience, prompting Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, and Mary Ann Sieghart, the author and BBC Radio 4 presenter, to move from the Scott Trust to the GMG board. The reforms were less radical than had been envisaged by some.

Katharine Viner - Alicia Canter /eyevine
Katharine Viner - Alicia Canter /eyevine

Charles Gurassa, the former Channel 4 chairman, was appointed chair of GMG in January.

He said: "Our CEO appointment was a thorough process, which I led as board chair.

"The board made a collective decision based on a unanimous recommendation from our nominations committee. We are delighted with Anna Bateson’s appointment."

However, sources have said that the appointment of Bateson as chief executive has angered some staff, who believed Underwood had made enough commercial progress to justify the appointment.

Part of that plan includes an expansion across Europe that builds upon Rusbridger's push into America and Australia. That debate has sparked tension over how best to invest the Scott Trust endowment fund, which swelled to £1.3bn as of April partly thanks to investments in the booming private equity market.

There is division over how and when The Guardian should use the money to invest in journalism, without squandering it on ventures that fail to make it a self-sustaining operation.

With The Guardian's American arm among the operations vying for cash, Underwood will face a challenge to ensure the money is deployed effectively after returning to the role as chief financial officer.