The Observer is 220 years old; Happy birthday to us

Born in the Age of Enlightenment, of Tom Paine and The Rights of Man, of Free Trade and of bloody revolution, the Observer celebrates its 220th birthday this weekend.

On 4 December 1791, WS Bourne, a young Irish entrepreneur, addressed his new readers in “the present extraordinary era, which opens upon an astonished World” and hoped his smudgy four-page newspaper would make his fortune. Alas, it didn’t. He was quickly in debt and had to sell to his brother, who in turn sold to an early media tycoon, William Innell Clement, in 1814. Clement was among the first to understand the importance of vivid reporting and simple illustration, but his editor, Lewis Doxat, prided himself on never writing an article “on any subject under any circumstances whatsoever”, an intriguing policy that saw him last 50 years in the chair.

Ploughing on through the 19th century, the paper covered the early reform movement, sided with the North in the American Civil War and was often appalled at the savagery of a justice system that saw nothing wrong with sentencing children to penal servitude for stealing a ribbon.

Lord Northcliffe pulled the paper, as he put it, “from the Fleet ditch” in the early 20th century, installing JL Garvin as editor, who stayed for 48 years. Garvin, a consummate newspaperman, introduced serious politics, book reviews, music writing, the first reporting on the environment and Fleet Street’s first film critic.

But the name most associated with the paper is David Astor’s. Under his editorship from 1948 to 1975, the Observer found its liberal soul, set new standards in reporting on Europe, on the developing world and on Britain’s colonial interests. It challenged readers’ assumptions about Britain’s global standing and it asked hard questions about living in a postwar world dominated by two nuclear superpowers. That tradition of liberal journalism carried on under successive ownerships, and continues today under the wing of the Guardian Media Group.

Today’s era is no less extraordinary than the “astonished World” of 1791. Long may the Observer continue to observe it.

This column was originally published in The Observer on Dec.  3, 2011.

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