Blair’s Favourite Newspaper

The Independent Story

The Independent has long been a favourite newspaper of British liberals and leftists alike.

Robert Fisk cover. 2009 Iran protest, San Francisco.

In its early years, the paper was on par with The Guardian (and certainly ahead of The Observer) in its courtship of progressive public opinion.

Many readers still fondly recall its print edition because The Independent offered a different kind of quality newspaper, from its campaigning frontpages to its innovative design and format.

However, The Independent is not what it used to be.

It’s not a broadsheet with a print edition. It’s now entirely online, sustained by clicks rather than sales. But this was an early sign of where many media organisations would later turn.

The Independent’s print edition was phased out in 2016.

This was a sad moment for readers who had come to trust it as one of the nicer, more humane and generally less vile national newspapers.

Before leaving Downing Street, Tony Blair called The Independent “a viewspaper”. He wasn’t wrong in a way. It ran on news analysis, commentary and opinion more than anything else.

Blair was taking issue with the paper’s scathing criticisms of his foreign policy.

He had courted news media for many years but now viewed the industry as a haven of ‘feral beasts’ baying for his blood.

It was a great compliment to The Independent’s coverage that the prime minister was so agitated by it.

So the newspaper decided to own this label and made it a sticker on its home page for a while.

While the tabloids used football and soft porn to sell copies, The Independent relied on commentary to keep readers interested, which it came to avow.

Views could sell on the days when the news couldn’t. It’s not hard to see where The Huffington Post’s initial all-opinion editorial approach came from.

The truth is that the newspaper industry has long not been the source of news for most people, and newspapers have had to find other ways to appeal to readers.

This was the case whether it was celebrity gossip, cricket coverage or pictures of topless girls.

You can tell a lot about a person by what newspaper they read, and The Independent tended to be the choice of liberals who fancied themselves sophisticated.

Breakthrough Years

Established in 1986, The Independent was first launched as a centre-left newspaper.

Initially, it was a broadsheet targeted at people who might pick up The Guardian or The Times but wanted something different.

The newspaper was launched against the backdrop of the Wapping dispute.

Rupert Murdoch was battling with print unions to move production from Fleet Street to the East London plant and cut jobs to streamline costs.

It was easy to make The Independent seem like an alternative to The Times and The Guardian, but the editors also wanted to take aim at The Telegraph.

This was an ambitious, uphill battle, but the newspaper drew away talent.

The Independent brought in two brilliant Middle East correspondents: Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn.

Between them, Fisk and Cockburn covered the 1991 Gulf War, interviewed Osama bin Laden and criticised the US sanctions on Iraq and the War on Terror.

A crucial part of its URP (unique readership point) was that it was not an organ of the media establishment.

It was not owned by any of the usual suspects. It wasn’t owned by Murdoch or his rivals Conrad Black and Robert Maxwell.

Originally the newspaper was owned by Newspaper Publishing PLC, and its first chairman was Baron Marcus Sieff, former chairman of Marks & Spencer.

Meanwhile, the editorial agenda was set by the former Telegraph journalists Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds.

Whittam Smith edited the newspaper from 1986 until 1994. He saw The Independent amass a readership of 400,000 by 1989. This was still small compared to many national titles at the time, but it was a respectable feat in just three years.

In 1990, The Independent on Sunday was launched with Stephen Glover as its editor. It had joined the ranks of the Sunday papers, alongside The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and The Sunday Telegraph.

At the time, The Observer had been in decline for several years under the reign of corrupt tycoon Tiny Rowland, and there was an opening for a new centre-left Sunday newspaper.

Three years later, The Independent would attempt to buy out The Observer, but its efforts faltered, and The Guardian snapped up the rival Sunday paper. Nevertheless, it was clear that The Independent had serious ambitions.

These titles would define the market for liberal opinion consumption for years to come. Soon enough, the paper became a place for rising stars rather than just an alternative for established journalists.

Andrew Marr became editor of The Independent in 1996. He would edit the paper for two years before joining the BBC, though he later returned to team up with Rosie Boycott as co-editors.

Belgian publishing company Independent News & Media (Mediahuis today) bought The Independent in 1997.

This ownership still made it stand out in a media business where dynasties prevailed.

Long Decline

By 2000, The Independent had become a part of the press establishment, with its writers and editors jumping back and forth between it and other platforms.

However, its readership had dwindled to around 222,000.

It was never quite able to outflank The Guardian for liberal readers, just as it couldn’t win a price war with Murdoch titles.

The Independent may have earned a reputation for supporting noble causes, but some lacked a popular reach in a country gripped by conservative media.

Critical coverage of the British royal family was unpopular with a large swathe of readers, while support for electoral reform was, unfortunately, more a cause of the middle classes.

In 2003, The Independent adopted a new style: running the same quality content as a broadsheet but in a tabloid format. This was the so-called ‘compact’ style, named as such to distance it from the red-top form.

Other newspapers followed its example, but The Independent was not expanding its readership and losing £5 million a year by 2004.

The paper had already undergone restructuring and refinancing more than once in its brief history.

By 2006, The Independent was increasing its readership to 258,000, but it wasn’t enough to prevent staff cuts and production changes just two years later.

The newspaper eliminated 25% of the company’s 230 editorial staff in 2008.

The Independent had 250,000 readers then, but its circulation would continue to contract. It would never return to the heights of its early years when it seemed like 200,000 readers was a start, and 400,000 was a sign of things to come.

By the end of the 2000s, The Independent looked like its best days were behind it, even though it had an outstanding editorial team.

Good journalism doesn’t always make a profit, and the newspaper needed a solution.

Saved By the Oligarch

The Independent had long marketed itself as one of the few newspapers not owned by an oligarch or a dynasty.

So it was a strange twist for this paper to be rescued by an oligarch looking to establish a media dynasty.

Russian billionaire and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev bought The Independent for just £1 in 2010 in a deal pledging to invest millions. His son Evgeny was parachuted in to oversee the media interests.

It looked like The Independent may have finally found a generous patron to back its quality journalism. The paper continued its viewspaper strategy of running young, upcoming political commentators.

Under the new ownership, The Independent launched a sister paper called the i , styled as a smarter version of the Metro targeted at a young, liberal audience. Millennial journalist Oliver Duff was appointed editor.

Like its sibling, the i was designed as compact-style paper, but it was intended to reach an audience that The Independent couldn’t. Selling for 20p, the i was more likely to be bought by people who would never buy a broadsheet.

During this period, The Independent helped launch the media career of Owen Jones after he published his much-praised book Chavs in 2011. Jones would make a name for himself as a straight-talking proponent of democratic socialism.

However, there was trouble ahead. One of the newspaper’s best-known columnists Johann Hari was embroiled in a scandal over falsifying stories and plagiarising the work of others.

Hari was caught not just falsifying quotes and key facts but he had misled readers about people he didn’t much like.

Once the star columnist at The Independent, Hari lost his Orwell Prize and left the newspaper for good.

This would have been a serious loss for any newspaper. Fortunately, The Independent still had many high-profile correspondents on its staff, and it could easily move on without Hari.

Former Lebedev media adviser Amol Rajan took over as editor in 2013. He was just 29 years old and the first non-white person to edit a national British newspaper in more than a century.

Even though The Independent continued to run articles taking apart government policy, notably austerity, there was a shift underway.

It happened gradually from the top, and few readers had any sense of it until the 2015 general election.

Although the newspaper did not formally endorse any party in 2015, The Independent ran an editorial arguing that the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition should continue.

This is after years of publishing critical coverage of austerity. Many loyal readers were baffled and appalled by this endorsement.

Though more than 40% of Independent readers had voted Lib Dem in 2010, 32% of them had also voted Labour. By 2015, the Lib Dems were set to face the merciless wrath of their 2010 voters.

The newspaper had supported the Liberal Democrats in 2010 and the Green candidate in the 2008 London mayoral election.

Though lukewarm on Labour, The Independent had never been a Tory media.

Far from it, The Independent was supposed to be the paper for people who didn’t accept the status quo and its conventional wisdom.

Much like its liberal rivals, The Independent did not capitalise on the left turn in Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.

Following The Guardian and The Observer, The Independent clung to establishment hopes during the Brexit crisis and declared itself ‘neutral’ in the next two elections.

It couldn’t bring itself to fully oppose the Tories after a decade of austerity.

Its readership had fallen to just 55,000 in 2016 when Lebedev decided to phase out the print edition and disband the Sunday title. Rajan stayed to oversee this painful transition, which cost a lot of jobs.

As part of the plan, the i was flogged off to Johnston Press and later became an asset of the Daily Mail and General Trust. It had outgrown the newspaper that nurtured it.

Many readers felt the end of The Independent’s print run was the death of the newspaper they had once loved.

It was certainly the end of an era: The Independent was no longer the go-to paper for people who loathed the Murdoch press.

Today, The Independent may just be another app, but it did escape the print race before the cost of paper skyrocketed.

Photograph courtesy of Steve Rhodes. Published under a Creative Commons license.