The first Observer: covered ‘greater objects of general concern’, but also ‘the fine Arts, emanations of Science, the Tragic and the Comic Muse, the National Police, fashion and fashionable follies’
The Observer‘s mission statement from its inception in 1791 reads: «Unbiased by prejudice – uninfluenced by party. Whole principle is independence, whole object is truth, and the dissemination of every species of knowledge that may conduce to the happiness of society.»
The Observer was born during the age of enlightenment, as a new set of values emerged at the core of western societies – freedom, democracy and reason. Rationality replaced dogma, science trumped conjecture, empiricism bested speculation. Even more importantly for the Observer, the idea of liberalism – the ventilation of diverse opinions and a tolerance of same – took root at this time.
The world has changed, as has the Observer, but these beliefs are still at the centre of the paper.
The Observer remains an independent voice and one that is committed to liberal and social democratic values. We’re committed to other issues too. We like fashion and food and football, for instance, but what distinguishes the Observer are its values. These are the philosophical scaffolds holding the paper in place, which help create a distinctive (not better, or worse, but different) voice on a Sunday and build on the paper’s legacy and its proud history as the oldest Sunday paper in the world.
And what a history. The Observer supported the Chartist movements for political and social reform in the 19th century. It backed the rise of early trade unionism. It sided with the North against the Confederate slave states in the American civil war. It played a vital role in helping to establish Amnesty International and Index on Censorship and became the principal supporter in the British press of Nelson Mandela.
This is the paper’s legacy and we will be trying to build on it next Sunday, when the Observer will be published as a four-section paper, plus our monthly Observer Food magazine. News, Sport, the Observer Magazine and our New Review section have all undergone significant changes.
The paper’s new incarnation came out of a series of rigorous discussions that looked at the role of a Sunday paper in an age when newspapers have radically changed and in an age of digital revolution. What is the proper role of a Sunday paper in that changed environment?
That was the challenge and we had to emerge with a paper that was distinct from the competition, that played on the Observer’s core strengths and that took account of what we could provide in an age when readers are increasingly at the receiving end of a media tsunami. Amid that chaos there is a role for a Sunday paper that offers increased reflection, discursiveness and analysis. But it also has to offer engagement, passion and a commitment to highlighting issues in line with the founding principles of the paper. The Observer has to stand for something, and to stand out as a result.
The new-look Observer will devote no less journalism to the topics at its very core – politics, arts, science, culture, international affairs, education. Not forgetting food (with the brilliant Nigel Slater), football (with the award-winning Paul Hayward) or the sundry other diversions that we all expect from a Sunday paper. A reformatted and redesigned Observer Magazine continues to offer that diversion.
Arts, literature and cultural affairs will be at the centre of our New Review – with additional pages, improved newsprint and an elegant new design – which will further enhance the Observer’s reputation as the premier Sunday destination for discursive and thoughtful analysis of cultural, philosophical and artistic issues. The New Review will also include a new section devoted to science and technology, increased space for critics and the return of seven-day TV listings.
In the news section, we will tilt toward more news analysis and comment. We will continue to be driven by domestic passions such as the need for constitutional and voting reform but will give more prominence to international affairs. We will be internationalist and proudly European.
We won’t just provide news, but a context for news, too. More analysis, more reflection, more debate, and more discursiveness will mark out an Observer that will seek to interpret, analyse and, crucially, to offer different voices and opinions to help the reader make their own sense of the world.
The paper that appears next Sunday will be substantially changed from the first edition of the Observer on 4 December 1791. But we will also have a great deal in common. That first edition set out its blueprint for Sunday journalism as one intended to «apply the strictest attention and care to greater objects of general concern», but also promised to report on «the fine Arts,emanations (sic) of Science, the Tragic and the Comic Muse, the National Police, fashion and fashionable follies». It still holds true.
John Mulholland is the editor of the Observer