John Horgan: The defiant Indy mentality will live on

Tony O’Reilly’s role in the paper, which is moving online, was one of support for its journalists

The London Independent (the "Indy"), and its Sunday sibling, are today closing down their print editions and moving entirely online.

Is this the end of a chapter or the beginning of something new? The two newspapers were born in the white heat of the technological revolution in print in the 1980s, and so their story has important implications for print media.

It also has a significant Irish dimension as they were owned, and financially supported, by the Irish Independent group for a large part of their 30-year existence.

In the mid-1980s, British businessman Eddie Shah realised new printing technology could dramatically lower the entry cost to the newspaper business, and started Today, which effectively broke the mould of traditional newspaper production.


In January 1986, Rupert Murdoch took over the Times newspapers and moved the entire operation out of Fleet Street and into a purpose-built new plant at Wapping, sacking scores of printers, generating picket-line confrontations, and creating huge ethical dilemmas for many journalists.

Some journalists had seen the way the wind was blowing, and bravely decided to take matters into their own hands.

One of them was Andreas Whittam Smith, then financial editor of the Daily Telegraph, who with some colleagues decided to take advantage both of the new technology and of the disaffection among Murdoch journalists. They invented the Independent, determined that it would be independent not only in name but in nature: no shareholder would be allowed to own more than 10 per cent of the business.

Editorially it also innovated, declining to write stories about the royals, or to join the somewhat incestuous parliamentary lobby correspondents' group. The initial television ad in October 1986 said it all, bluntly: "The Independent. It is. Are you?"

It was staffed by wholesale defectors from the Times newspapers, among others. The next few years were a rollercoaster ride. They entered the Sunday market in January 1990 but this greatly over-extended their activities (the Independent on Sunday had its own staff of 86) and, later that year, gratefully accepted further investment from El Pais in Spain and La Repubblica in Italy, in the process breaching their own 10 per cent rule.

They tried, and failed, to buy the ailing Observer, their £10 million bid trumped by the Guardian's £28 million. But they were pushing the envelope: circulation had risen to 415,000 by November of that year. In another part of the forest, things were also stirring. Murdoch was attacking all his rivals by selling the Times for 10p a copy, seriously affecting the Indy circulation and profitability in particular. The Indy did not remain profitable for long after this.

Tony O'Reilly began to invest in the Indy, as did the Mirror group. Whittam Smith departed as editor in 1994 following a financial restructuring which left the Mirror group and the Irish Independent group as equal shareholders, and the roll-call of editors and journalists during this period continued to be impressive.

Bottom line

Vigorous O’Reilly management, and the appeal of its writers, helped to cut the Indy losses very substantially, but it was never to cross the bottom line into profit. Nonetheless, in 1998 Abbey Street bought out the 54 per cent it didn’t own for £30 million.

Smith was succeeded as editor by Andrew Marr; Rosie Boycott edited the Independent on Sunday. Simon Kelner – who was to be twice named editor of the year in Britain – then succeeded Marr, and Janet Street-Porter succeeded Boycott. Their star writers included names such as Robert Fisk and David McKittrick. By 2004 losses were down to £5 million a year, and the Indy was regularly awarded recognition for its layout and design.

Against fierce British competition, however, the Indy still struggled: its woes were finessed in its owner’s annual reports, and the provisional date for achieving profitability disappeared further and further into the future. But O’Reilly remained supportive. He hoped his Indy writers would be an asset for all his titles, which indeed they became, but only to a limited extent.

O’Reilly’s involvement in the Indy from 1994 was either hubris or altruism, depending on who’s telling the tale. But there were compensations – his critics alleged unfairly that his knighthood in 2000 was one of them, as the Indy’s large losses reduced the tax liability on other Independent News & Media-owned UK enterprises.

His support for the Indy staff over that period is undoubtedly a substantial entry on the credit side of the ledger. And he certainly maintained a distance from its editorial line, which was uncommon among other contemporary media owners.

An example of this occurred in February 2004 when the Indy published its verdict on the Hutton report about Tony Blair's involvement in the US-led Iraq war: a blazing one-word front page headline: "Whitewash?".

As it happened, O'Reilly was, at that very moment, hosting in Cape Town a meeting of his "Advisory Council", an annual meeting of the great and the good whom he liked to gather around him (it was chaired by Ben Bradlee of Washington Post fame and included Brian Mulroney, former prime minister of Canada, Margaret Jay, and Ken Clarke).

Avuncular neutrality

When the Indy came up for discussions, there were mutterings, and it was not difficult to detect that not all the great and good were enthused by the Indy’s editorial stance on Iraq or on the Blair-Bush scenario in general. O’Reilly followed the discussion with his usual air of avuncular neutrality.

After a break for coffee, a senior UK executive rejoined the meeting with news. The “Whitewash?” edition of the Indy, he informed those present, had sold more copies of the paper than any other recent issue. The mixed feelings manifested by some of those present as they attempted, without much success, to reconcile their concern about the Indy’s politics (and the headline in particular) with their innate respect for its bottom line, were patent.

By 2010, there was too much writing on the wall, and both the Indy titles were off-loaded by Independent News and Media to the Russian magnate Alexander Lebedev for £1, and deferred payments of £9.2 million.

Not even Lebedev's cash could save the print editions of the papers. But the success of its mini-newspaper sibling, the i, recently sold on as a successful going concern, may be a portent for the future.

One way or another, the spirit that generated the Indy will survive wherever print newspapers are produced. That spirit was perhaps best expressed in the lines from GK Chesterton that Michael Crozier chose as the motif for his book, The Making of the Independent:

And I dream of the days when work was scrappy And rare in our pockets the mark of the mint And we were angry and poor and happy And proud of seeing our names in print.

John Horgan is emeritus professor of journalism at Dublin City University