Courtesy of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
Georgina Henry, who has died aged 53 of cancer, was a former deputy editor of the Guardian who helped change the future of newspaper commentary when she devised, launched and edited Comment is free (Cif). It marked the first use by a mainstream news organisation of digital technologies to embrace a wide variety of voices and responses.
Leading a team of about half a dozen, Georgina launched Cif in March 2006, determined to make it a place of vibrant debate from multiple contributors. A printed newspaper was constrained in the number of people whose views could be accommodated, the only form of response traditionally being through a letter to the editor.
Internet technologies changed all that – and Georgina was a pioneer in seeing how a newspaper's website could be used as a platform for voices that would ordinarily not have been heard. The idea had been tried by web startups, but for a mainstream paper it was revolutionary.
Georgina had little experience of digital publishing at the time, but she was an extremely experienced journalist – for the previous 11 years deputy editor of the Guardian. She was passionately democratic in her politics, warm and open in behaviour and quite formidable in her energy and drive.
The site was built and launched in 12 weeks. Within the first seven days the small team had published more than 130 pieces, little prepared for what kind of response they would attract and with minimal capacity for moderating it. When she stepped down from the role just over four years later she recalled: "We hadn't spent much time thinking about the debate that the pieces we published would provoke; we hadn't properly briefed our writers on what to expect (because we hadn't given it much thought); we hadn't suggested to the writers that they joined in their comment threads."
She conceded that it was a naive experiment in some ways. But by the site's fourth birthday, it was clear that the world of commentary had changed for ever: "I would never, ever want to go back to a world where we never heard from readers except through a filtered letters page," she wrote (typically, in the space "below the line" – BTL – rather than "above the line" – ATL – where the commentators lived).
"I've learned that ATL without BTL is not complete. Personally I believe (many of you may disagree) that they are mutually dependent – at best, they bring out the best in each other. I've also learned how difficult it is for journalists who grew up in a print world to cede authority and control. It's been the most challenging and also stimulating experience I've ever had as an editor. Meanwhile, as a citizen, I've encountered views and opinions here that have made me think harder about all the assumptions I've made over the years – political and otherwise."
Georgina was born in the Yemeni port city of Aden, then a British colony, the daughter of Mike and Annette Henry. Her father was a British army officer – he retired a full colonel – and Georgina's early life was an itinerant one, changing country every three years. At 11 she was sent to be educated at Battle Abbey, a small private school in East Sussex, and subsequently at Cranbrook School, Kent.
Her political awakening began in her late teens, studying politics and spending a year in a kibbutz in Israel. She began to toy with the idea of journalism – acquiring the basics of shorthand and typing at the London College of Printing – before studying history at King's College London.
A contemporary on the course – though he was four years her senior – was a young student from Belfast who had some notoriety at the time, having been wrongly accused of offences connected with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Ronan Bennettwent on to become a highly successful novelist and screenwriter – and Georgina's husband. They married in 2003, and she was intensely proud and supportive of Ronan's work, from his novels and screenplays to his Channel 4 drama Top Boy (2011), about gang life and the struggle to survive on a fictitious east London housing estate.
Georgina's journalistic career began in 1984, writing about the media on a series of trade magazines before joining the Guardian as media correspondent in 1989.
For five days a week she reported on the media industry, and usually came into the office on the sixth to edit the Media Guardian section. Reporting on the media is sometimes a tricky role, with competitors quick to complain if they sniff bias or lack of balance. Georgina was respected as a straight and fair reporter. As an editor she was knowledgable, quick and decisive.
In 1993, when I was editing the Guardian's features and comment pages, I asked Georgina to be my deputy. For her, it was a fork in the road – away from writing and towards full-time editing. We were jointly responsible for the weekend sections and the recently launched G2 section as well as the comment pages – with Georgina continuing to edit Media Guardian at the end of the week.
She continued in the role, as deputy to Roger Alton, when I became deputy editor. On being appointed editor at the beginning of 1995, I knew immediately whom I wanted as my senior deputy. I had come to rely deeply on Georgina's judgment, energy and directness.
Numerous colleagues came to value her warmth, approachability and speed of action. She was a great problem solver, a buster of inertia, a tornado of getting things done.
Nothing was ever done, or believed, by halves. Leader writers knew to expect challenge and restless interrogation from Georgina, ever curious and always as well-read as anyone in the room. There would sometimes be heated arguments when she believed the Guardian was being mealy-mouthed or – over intervention in Bosnia, for example – just wrong. She was intensely political, but never ideological. She could be deeply upset when she thought her paper had mis‑stepped. But never for long: the clouds would melt away and she would soon be gossiping and joking over a drink.
Georgina was at the time one of the most senior women in the British media, and in 1995 banded together with a number of her peers – including Eve Pollard and the then Rebekah Wade – to set up Women in Journalism, on whose advisory board she remained. To many younger colleagues she was a generous and inspiring mentor.
The early years of our joint tenure were marked out in libel actions – Hamilton, Aitken, the Police Federation all in three years – and by transformations in the paper, including the move to full colour printing and the first steps into digital publishing in 1997. Holidays with Ronan were spent travelling – to Latin America, Vietnam and Africa – and her passion for roaming was only briefly interrupted by two maternity breaks, for Finn in 1999 and Molly in 2001. They came to share her enthusiasm for seeing the world.
In late 2003 the Independent and the Times moved to tabloid format. The Guardian moved to a new Berliner format two years later. Georgina held the fort editing the paper for many months as my other deputy editor, Paul Johnson, and I disappeared for long periods to work on a radical new design for the paper.
When the Berliner was up and running, Georgina signalled that she was ready for something new. In May 2005 Arianna Huffington had set up a news aggregator and opinion blog. It was, initially, much ridiculed – but not by the Guardian's head of digital,Emily Bell, who took it very seriously as a new vehicle for journalism and as a potential threat should (as eventually happened) Huffington ever decide to launch a UK edition. Together, Emily and Georgina resolved to launch Comment is free.
Georgina flew to New York to see the fledgling Huffington Post operation and remembered standing on the pavement afterwards thinking: "I could do that, I know I could do that, it's just exactly what I could do." She was, she recalled, literally shaking with excitement.
Once back at the Guardian, she said, "I just emailed everybody. I talked to all the existing columnists, who were all really suspicious. I remember one said to me: 'How can we have all those voices? I'm your authority on this.' We had no comment policy, we had no moderators, we just had nothing at all in place. It was a bloody nightmare, practically gave me a heart attack."
Emily Bell recalled: "George, so very talented and more senior than all of them, only ever talked about the idea, the delivery, and, ironically, whether she was the right person to do it. Of course she was vital to it.
"She was just a natural leader and had a digital sensibility. She listened to the team and sought their advice in a very open and inclusive way. But the editorial eye, the contacts, the voice, the gravitas, passion and commitment she brought to it really shaped the personality and the spirit of Cif.
"George had just about every major columnist protesting to her that it 'tarnished the brand' to open their work up to the below-the-line rabble. We had started the adventure in participatory journalism in the hardest place of all, but George was both empathetic and resolute.
"We had endless problems and sometimes disagreements about the best way to moderate the torrent of comments. But there were threads that also shone with insight or wit or informed passionate debate. And George was always as proud of this as of the commissioned journalism. In audience terms it was a huge success. In publishing terms at the time it was really groundbreaking. It marked a turning point in the development of the Guardian and the web."
Another member of the team, Matt Seaton – now at the New York Times – remembers: "George made relationships with the regulars and often turned the talented writers into contributors above the line. What was George's instinct became the controlling ethos – so important to the character of how Cif conducts debate. It was a great democratic experiment."
"One revolutionary element was that we gave certain writers "blogging rights". The musician and broadcaster Tom Robinson, for instance, was one of her early regulars. Without George's innovation would we have felt so assured about entering into the relationship we did with Glenn Greenwald? I doubt it."
After she had set up the main Cif platform, Georgina created a number of "vertical" sub-sections – for America, the Middle East, the Sounds Jewish podcast, on Liberty and Cif Belief. She commissioned the writer Ziauddin Sardar to blog the entire Qur'an. Concerned at the marginalisation of Muslim voices after the 7/7 London suicide bombings, she put together a group of 30-40 potential writers who were regularly commissioned and, together with a colleague, Madeleine Bunting, organised debates and meetings. At the British Museum she helped devise and curate a series of lectures drawing contemporary meanings from ancient objects.
Georgina organised meet-ups for the regular below-the-line commenters. For Cif's fourth birthday she turned over the entire site to the users to commission and edit.
There was much that was ragged about the early days of Cif – and Georgina was from time to time targeted, sometimes personally, if the balance or comment threads occasionally went out of kilter. The new team had to devise and police rules about moderation. It was initially, Georgina recalled, "fairly anarchic, too chaotic – but it was a pretty rip-roaring success. It's much more disciplined now, it's much better edited and it's much more mature, but I did try and let a thousand flowers bloom."
In May 2010 Georgina moved on to be head of culture – with the aim of doing for the arts what she had achieved with comment. She had learned much about how online communities worked and was determined to open up the experience of music, books, film and theatre to the widest diversity of views and involvement.
By the end of 2011 she had been promoted to head of digital and felt she was making real progress with culture. An extremely accomplished skier, she went off for a skiing holiday with her family and friends. While away, she complained of double vision and on her return was shocked to be told that she had an aggressive sinus tumour growing behind her right eye. It looked probable that she would lose one eye and possible that the cancer could invade her brain.
In the last two years she had gruelling periods of treatment, including an operation to remove one of her startlingly blue eyes. But she kept working as long as possible, seeing colleagues and friends at her home in Hackney. On my visits she would offer advice with her usual mix of tact, discretion, good humour and extreme directness. I don't know of anyone who saw her during this period who didn't leave feeling uplifted.
Her 30-year relationship with Ronan was at the heart of her life. They fell in love after studying the English civil war together. In some ways it was a most unlikely alliance: the union of the resolutely middle-class daughter of a full British colonel with an intensely committed Irishman from west Belfast. But Colonel Henry had greeted Ronan by telling him: "We've done terrible things in Ireland," and the two men turned out not to have wildly differing aspirations for the island.
Their home was one of – sometimes heartfelt – political debate and good food: they were both changed by their love of the other. She also drew great joy from seeing Molly and Finn settle into new schools, throwing themselves into a whirl of swimming, acting and music.
Near the end of this toughest of periods she surprised me by saying what a happy time it had been overall. "I often think this … the richness of the experience of friendship in the last year-and-a-half has been something so deep for me that I can hardly express it. It's been the most wonderful thing."
Newspaper offices can be hard-boiled places where executives typically win respect rather than love. George was both respected and loved. She was an exceptional person.
She is survived by Ronan, Finn, Molly, two sisters, a brother and her mother.
• Georgina Clare Henry, journalist, born 8 June 1960; died 7 February 2014