It had been many years since I had seen anything of Andreas Whittam Smith, but he popped up on the television this week to discuss the fate of the Independent, the newspaper he founded 30 years ago but which is now about to close. I was pleased to see that at 78 he had acquired a knighthood, for this was an honour he had deserved for a long time. The strange thing, though, is that he was given it for services to the Church of England, to which he later became a financial adviser, and not for his great lifetime achievement in founding and successfully editing a national daily newspaper.
When this happened in 1986 he gave up a good job as City editor of the Daily Telegraph, persuaded two younger Telegraph journalists, Matthew Symonds and Stephen Glover, to join him, and somehow managed to raise the money to start and efficiently manage a newspaper that promised to be the only one in Fleet Street beholden to no individual and to no ideology, but to be frank, fearless and free and to offer unbiased coverage of world events. Hence its title, the Independent, and its advertising slogan, ‘It is. Are you?’
Andreas, calm, dignified and benign, looked far less like a press baron, or indeed any kind of entrepreneur, than the country clergyman his father had been, but he pulled off this astonishing feat and for several years surprised everybody by making his newspaper a great success. The timing was somehow perfect. Rupert Murdoch was in the process of ending the print union’s stranglehold over the newspaper industry, but amid much bitterness and thuggery. It felt like the moment for something fresh and new, and many journalists rallied enthusiastically to the call. I was among them, resigning as deputy editor to Peregrine Worsthorne on the Sunday Telegraph to take a job as the Independent’s first correspondent in Washington. I loved working with Perry, but the Telegraph in recent years had come to seem stuffy and sclerotic and the idea of America was exciting.
The public responded too. Within a few years, the Independent’s circulation had risen to more than 400,000, and I remember the elation in the office when it briefly overtook that of the Times. The paper’s claim to independence was exemplified by one or two largely symbolic gestures — its refusal to join the House of Commons Lobby system, for example, or to publish any tittle-tattle about the royal family — but these symbols seemed nevertheless to resonate with readers.
It was all intoxicating for a while, but then things started to go wrong. Circulation declined, money ran short, and there were bailouts that so undermined its claim to independence that in 2011 it dropped from its front page a slogan that read ‘free from proprietorial influence’. Alexander Lebedev, who bought the Independent in 2010, is by all accounts a benevolent proprietor, but a proprietor nevertheless.
Lebedev insists that the only thing that’s closing down is the print edition; that the Independent will break new ground as the first online-only national and international newspaper. This is portrayed as another exciting and innovative development, an example that other newspapers are in due course bound to follow. Even Andreas promotes this line, but there’s no concealing the fact that it’s really a consequence of miserable failure. How else could one describe a fall in circulation from more than 400,000 at its peak to only around 50,000 today?
The reasons for this tragedy are not obvious to me. The Independent may have lost some of its original star recruits, but it remained — and remains — a good newspaper, committed to free thought and quality journalism, even if somewhat hampered by lack of resources. It was born, like the SDP, at a time of widespread revulsion against both Thatcherism and an increasingly left-wing Labour party; and, like the SDP, it was eventually doomed by its failure to establish deep roots in any large slice of British society.
But Andreas turned out to be the improbable instigator of an exciting adventure that few of those involved at the start will ever forget. Many people thought that the Independent would last for no more than a couple of weeks, but instead it enjoyed several years of well-deserved success and made an enduring mark on the world of journalism. It was hairy to begin with. I wrote my first reports from America in a shabby Washington hotel room with no contacts and nothing to help but a map of the US, a telephone, a television and the daily press. But I have never for a moment regretted throwing in my lot with this quixotic enterprise.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.