Saturday 9 January 2010

Free the Indy?

Much speculation swirls around the future of The Independent newspapers.

First, the BBC's Robert Peston offered some authoritative sounding speculation that Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev was close to purchasing the troubled group and would plan to turn it into a free daily newspaper.

It sounds like the ultimate anti-paywall strategy - and would spread much fear and loathing around other media groups. (Whatever the pros and cons, it might at least put one nail in the coffin of the quite absurd 'if the newspapers charge, then the BBC will have to' meme, but perhaps that is a subject for another time).

The the Guardian stirred things up further with its report that ex-Today programme editor Rod Liddle was being pre-emptively lined up to be the new editor of a Lebedev Indy. (The Russian did quickly install his own man, Geordie Greig from Tatler, as Standard editor).

Liddle, now often described as a professional controversialist would certainly be a highly controversial choice.

But there are a few odd things about this.

Firstly, the story strikes me as one of those revelations which does not much help the front-runner. (One might speculate as to whether that could be the purpose of the leak, though I am not well placed to gauge that).

Millwall-supporting Liddle seems to relish his having acquired a "no-one likes us; we don't care" reputation, by provoking recent controversies over his gob-smackingly sexist article about Harriet Harman (for which he apologised) and taking his anti-PC crusade into very dubious territory over race too (for which he half-apologised, and engaged on the New Statesman website with his many critics - myself included, somewhat more than seemed possible given the content of his posting).

One can easily imagine Liddle laughing off a facebook/twitter campaign threatening to boycott the paper if he were to edit it. But could staff reaction prove a bigger issue? And, given his lack of senior newspaper experience, he might not entirely welcome the sardonic contribution of BBC news director Richard Sambrook on twitter yesterday, as reported by Sarah Ditum at the Paperhouse blog.

Dear Mr Ledbedev, if you want to know what it's like to employ Rod Liddle as an editor give me a call. Strictly impartial view of course.

Second, Sambrook's message reinforces the thought that Liddle would surely be both most surprising, and surely riskiest, appointment to a national editorship for a generation.

It would certainly swim against the tide. If the trend for big brain pointy-headed commentators like Andrew Marr and Will Hutton to edit nationals in the 1990s was unusual, this would be on a totally different scale. (Marr describes his not entirely successful experience well in his My Trade memoir). The challenges of the moment for the media groups have seen a move away from the 'big personality' publicity-hungry editorships of the likes of Andrew Neil, Janet Street-Porter, Rosie Boycott or Piers Morgan, on all paper and perhaps especially on the broadsheets. The age of Robert Thomson and James Harding, Will Lewis and Tony Gallagher, Lionel Barber, Alan Rusbridger, Simon Kelner, Roger Alton, Richard Wallace and John Mulholland has been much more one of the newspaper professional, seeking to meet the editorial tests and the new challenges of financial viability, print-web integration and the rest of it.

But, thirdly, there is something else odd about the idea of a Liddle editorship to shake up the Indy too. After all, if one was looking for an Indy editor willing to strike out against the groupthink of the liberal intelligentsia, one would hardly need to look beyond the the current incumbent Roger Alton.

I enjoyed the experience of seeing Alton close up during the three years when I worked for The Observer. It would certainly (mildly) caricature his views to ask whether Alton's personal liberal libertarianism might at times place him to the right of Liddle, but his personal politics were certainly defined in opposition to the Guardianista orthodoxy. His staunch support for the Iraq war and admiration of Tony Blair are most often cited, though I suspect a hatred of speed cameras might provide the foundation of the Alton worldview.

Yet very many of those, like this author, who probably do not share a political philosophy would acknowledge his enormous journalistic talents. Indeed, having launched The Guardian's pioneering G2 section and then turned around The Observer, he has a good claim to have been one of the most significant (if sometimes unsung) editorial pioneers of recent times.

UPDATE [Sunday]:

One final thought. The biggest challenge to Liddle is surely experience rather than opinion.

But a Liddle Independent would resemble (in reverse) the quixotic experiment of Rosie Boycott's Express editorship, which sought to give that traditionalist mid-market tabloid the values of a liberal broadsheet. The risk is of confusing current readers without attracting new ones, especially if that might imply a New Liddle Indy competing directly with the behemoth that is Paul Dacre's Daily Mail. Unless Liddle's views - such as his climate scepticism - were not reflected in the newspaper, though that raises the question as to what the point would be of employing and muzzling a controversialist polemicist.

It would also suggest an odd inconsistency in the Lebedev strategy. The Standard has made great play of ditching and apologising for the 'Mail Lite' miserabilism of the Veronica Wadley/Associated era, recasting itself as a confident, modern metropolitan paper.

Wouldn't it be odd for, at the same time, Lebedev to take an established liberal broadsheet with a largely metropolitan readership and seem to signal a desire to take it into Dacreland?


Sarah Ditum said...

I was thinking about Alton's magazine-y additions to the Guardian and Observer while I was writing about him. I'm a mag person more than a newsprint one, so my inclination is to like them: but I think that the decision to end the Observer mags (bar Food) was the right one, and a lot of G2 is deadweight now. Pretending to be a magazine (and the Independent learnt this under Kelner too, I think) probably isn't enough to get people to stick with paper.

This is a bit by the way, and doesn't detract from them being great launches and to Alton's credit. It just seems that newspapers need to be a bit more news-y.

Sunder Katwala said...


Yes, I think that's right.

Early OSM was astonishingly good, and could easily have done well on the newstands, and the current magazine is a shadow of what it was in its first couple of years. As with G2, even the most pioneering inventions need a further impetus. But both were somewhat game-changing of their kind, at their time.

Personally, on days if I have three/four Sunday papers in the house, there are often times when some (possibly pretty good) magazines don't get opened at all.

I suspect both the recession, the bulk of papers and rise of social networking, etc (and rising cover prices) must all have had an impact on the number of people who have a 2-newspaper plus habit. I expect the Indy has quite often been an additional purchase for s proportion of readers.