Tony O’Reilly is about to achieve his long-cherished ambition to control The Independent. Can he save it? Is it worth saving?
The Independent was that extraordinary thing, a successful Fleet Street newspaper launch. What’s more, one with a fairytale quality about it. Although born at a particularly propitious time – when new technology was battering down the barriers to market entry – it owed its early success to much more than enterprising opportunism.
The Independent captured the sentiment of the time – the intelligentsia’s growing disillusionment with Murdoch-style media manipulation – and distilled it into a winning brand proposition. Trust me, I’ll be your voice, it seemed to say. And at one time 700,000 readers did.
Nowadays, it is fashionable to see The Independent as a heroic casualty in an asymmetrical struggle it could never win. Specifically, The Times price war, instigated by Rupert Murdoch in June 1993, was held to have distorted the market and crippled the Independent’s chances of competing in it. All true… up to a point, Lord Copper.
The circulation of both The Independent and its sister Sunday publication did, indeed, go into a decline from which they have never recovered. But the performance of The Guardian, which held its position without price cutting, tarnishes the credibility of this theory. In reality, the rot had set in at Newspaper Publishing long before. Early success – the Independent reached an all-time circulation high of 422, 679 in October 1989 – brought on a nasty bout of proprietorial hubris. It was evidenced by the launch of The Independent On Sunday early the following year.
It was this which first caused the chronic financial under-reach which has plagued Newspaper Publishing ever since. It became more vulnerable to Murdoch’s tactics than it need have been. And this consequently led to the successive compromises in the proprietorial principles set out by its founding fathers – causing incalculable damage to the brand proposition.
It’s true O’Reilly has been making promising noises. He will give the Independent a singularity of vision (a more upmarket one), which is something it has been lacking for years. He will pour some money, he says, into restoring the papers’ sadly maimed editorial quality. But will this be enough, after years of neglect? And can a brand which has built its unique reputation upon a non-partisan viewpoint enjoy the same credibility under an autocrat, however benign? It was. But will it be?
Cover story, page 28