Windows on to the 'Indo'
Gavin Ellis, former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, takes us on a tour d’horizon of INM’s global businesses. Ida Milne’s essay, The Sense of History: Working at Independent House, narrating family loyalties among the Independent workforce, is at once nostalgic and unsettling.
The essay format has advantages in a relatively compact book of just over 200 pages. It enables the reader to see a multifaceted story from a variety of angles. But it results in some repetition. And it leaves the reader in doubt as to whether the full, complex persona of the Indo has been captured.
It would be difficult to overstate the role of the Irish Independent in public life during the first six or seven decades of the 20th century.
It was the organ of conservative, Catholic, middle-class Ireland. For all that de Valera’s Irish Press was the vehicle of Fianna Fáil orthodoxy, the Independent was the steady, sometimes strident, exponent of establishment values. The Irish Times was a bit player, its circulation reflecting the decline of the dwindling Protestant business classes.
On good days, the Independent could sell 200,000 copies. The Irish Press challenged but was never a contender for top seller. The Independent had the soul of middle Ireland. It was a national institution and, under O’Reilly, an expanding business. Managing director Joe Hayes liked to stress its “underlying strength”.
From the early 1960s, The Irish Times reinvented itself as the preferred journal of a new establishment that was forming around an expanding economy and a liberalising social ethic. It is a pity that none of the contributors here quite pinpoints why and how the Irish Independent lost its place as the forum of public discourse and ideas to The Irish Times.
It lost more than prestige. With The Irish Times appealing more to the affluent AB cohort, the Independent was cut off from a growing share of the advertising cake. Increasingly it was forced to the middle market. The Murphys sacked the cerebral Louis McRedmond from the editorship. The shift to sensationalism, mild at first, was begun.
O’Reilly was a benign proprietor. He loved his newspapers. But like the Murphys before him, he baulked at investing in editorial resources to match The Irish Times. The frantic efforts of old-school newsmen such as Vinnie Doyle could not make up for that. Doyle gets a chapter to himself, penned by Joe Breen. Nor could occasional dramatic “scoops”, such as Sam Smyth’s Ben Dunne interview, which finally blew the whistle on corrupt links between business and politics.
Independent executives sought comfort in the fact that the exotic concoction that the Sunday Independent had become was the biggest-selling broadsheet, commanding extraordinary strength in readership across all social classes.
Today, INM struggles with debt, shrinking resources and the challenges of internet media. The auguries scarcely suggest a coming golden age of editorial development under the new regime. The first challenge, however, is to sustain earnings in a volatile market. In the end, the only truly free press is the one that pays its own way. In all of its manifestations, in good years and bad, Independent Newspapers has always proudly done that.
Conor Brady was editor of The Irish Times from 1986 to 2002