(c) The Independent
If I split up with human beings as commonly as I split up with newspapers, I’d spend most of my life in the divorce courts. It wasn’t so long ago that I decided to terminate my 30-year relationship with Scotsman Publications, on account of The Scotsman’s drearily partisan coverage of the build-up to last September’s referendum on Scottish independence. Now, with the 2015 UK general election almost upon us – two days and counting – I’ve decided to split up with another daily publication that once I perused with fondness and enthusiasm.
This time, the publication in question is The Independent, or ‘The Indy’ as it’s commonly known, which used to have a banner proudly proclaiming it as ‘free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence.’ And without some obscenely rich, reactionary and invariably tax-dodging proprietor like the 4th Viscount Rothermere (owner of the Daily Mail) or the Barclay Brothers (owners of the Daily Telegraph) at the helm, The Independent’s politics tended to gravitate towards the centre, if not a little to the left. It also gave prominence to environmental issues. This made it a breath of fresh air in Britain’s newspaper market, crowded with bellicose right-wing shout-sheets like the Mail, Telegraph, Express, Sun, Star, etc.
Yesterday, though, The Independent decided to crap all over that reputation with an editorial that urged its readers to vote for the continuation of the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition that’s been in power for the past five years. The reasoning for this, claimed the editorial headline, was ‘in defence of liberal democracy’. Though I have to say that most of the things the Tory / Lib Dem alliance has inflicted on Britain or nurtured in it since 2010 – welfare cuts, zero-hour contracts, unpaid internships, food-banks, the Bedroom tax, a moribund NHS, exorbitant student fees, tax avoidance – are not what immediately spring to my mind when I think of the term ‘liberal democracy’.
But to be honest, The Independent’s lurch rightwards doesn’t surprise me. The newspaper has been in a sorry state in recent years, in terms of both its daily circulation figures – just under 64,000 last year (compared with 400,000 a quarter-century earlier) – and its general tone and content.
Because I live overseas, I read its online edition rather than its print edition. And I have to say that if you remember The Independent in its glory days, the modern-day digital version of it is a depressing thing indeed. In a purely technical sense, as a website, it’s a shambles. To get to the comment page, for instance, you have to negotiate your way through something called ‘Voices’. Then there’s the increasingly naff stories that it tries to peddle as news. When I checked out its front page today, I was treated to such headlines as ALIEN SOUNDS RECORDED 22 MILES ABOVE THE EARTH; STUDENT IN COURT FOR COVERING HOUSEMATES’ FOOD IN WINDOW-CLEANER AND SPIT; CHUCK NORRIS IS WORRIED ABOUT WHAT THE US MILITARY ARE UP TO IN TEXAS; HOW TO MAXIMISE YOUR SEXUAL POTENTIAL – AN EXPERT’S GUIDE; and IS A MAN’S BEARD REALLY COVERED IN FAECES? Plus – ooh, a little bit of politics creeping in here – HOW OLD DOES NICK CLEGG’S PHONE THINK HE IS?
It might not be quite as lame as the ghastly, trivia-obsessed UK edition of The Huffington Post, edited by Mehdi Hassan. But it isn’t far off it.
How different it seems from the original Independent that appeared in the 1980s – 1986, if I remember correctly – which was so determinedly highbrow, sombre and un-flashy that Private Eye magazine was quick to nickname it The Indescribably Boring. Under the editorship of the crusty but endearing Andreas Whittam Smith, the newspaper tried to do what few, if any, other newspapers did in Britain at the time (or have done since): it actually concentrated on news. Which meant for a start that it avoided the mind-numbingly obsessive and nauseatingly sycophantic coverage of the British Royal Family that blighted the rest of the British press. This was during the 1980s, an era when newspapers devoted acres of newsprint to the ever-expanding / shrinking waistline of Sarah ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, Duchess of York, or to the ever-expanding / shrinking love-life of Diana ‘Di’ Spencer, Princess of Wales; and I respected The Independent immensely for ignoring that crap.
Amid the frivolous drivel that soils the modern-day Independent (or at least, the online edition of it that I’m familiar with), there are still things that I’ve found worth reading. When it comes to writing about the Arab world, the newspaper has the wisest head in British journalism, Robert Fisk. Although to be honest, Fisk isn’t exactly burdened with competition. There have also been good items by the sometimes funny left-wing comedian Mark Steel and the sometimes perceptive, but sometimes shrill, left-wing feminist / Muslim commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I wonder how the two of them have reacted to their newspaper’s endorsement of the Tory / Lib Dem coalition. They’ve been strangely silent about it on Twitter so far.
On the other hand, The Independent has often strained my patience by publishing missives by the notorious literary snob Howard Jacobson. And I’m not impressed by the fact that its chief political commentator is John Rentoul, a man whom Total Politics magazine has described as “probably the most high-profile defender of Tony Blair’s record in the British media”. (His columns, meanwhile, have been described as “the last bastions of pure, unadulterated Blairism.”) Rentoul, by the way, has tweeted his reaction to The Independent coming out in favour of the Tories and Lib Dems, and he’s delighted about it. Presumably he’d rather see a right-wing Tory / Lib Dem government than a slightly-more-left-wing Labour one that’s dared to disown his old hero Tony Blair.
The Independent has also seen fit to publish a regular column by Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing loony / fruitcake United Kingdom Independence Party. I suppose it would justify this by arguing that, in the interests of fairness, it needs to give voice to political opinions from all points on the spectrum, right and left. But actually UKIP’s loony / fruitcake opinions on immigration, law and order, defence, education and the environment get articulated every day in the British media – on practically every page of the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph.
I was annoyed by The Independent’s coverage of the Scottish referendum last year. The British mainstream media pushed a narrative whereby Scotland, if it voted for independence, would destroy itself, and the UK, and the world, and the entire universe, in a holocaust of economic / social / moral chaos. But while The Guardian, that other representative of the British left-leaning press, at least tempered the narrative by printing a few pieces with dissenting views by journalists like George Monbiot and Deborah Orr, The Independent stuck steadfastly to the Scottish-independence-equals-Armageddon line.
Possibly this was because, selling only 3000 copies a day in Scotland, the newspaper had neither the resources nor the inclination to send someone to Scotland to report on what was happening there. So it just rehashed all the horror stories being spouted in London by the Mail, Express and company. Particularly crass were the cartoons by the Independent’s cartoonist Dave Brown, depicting Alex Salmond as a clownish and corpulent music-hall Scotsman who wore a kilt, sporran, bonnet and sprig of heather. This allowed Brown to show Salmond flashing his bare arse – because, ha-ha, Scotsmen don’t wear anything under their kilts!
Indeed, the prospect of a minority Labour Party administration dependent on the support of the Scottish National Party is officially a major reason why The Independent feels obliged to back another Tory-Lib Dem administration: “This would be a disaster for the country, unleashing justified fury in England at the inclusion of MPS who – unlike this title – do not wish the Union to exist.” Here’s a memo to The Independent’s editorial writers: if there’s anything guaranteed to destroy the Union in the near future, it’s another five years of Tory-led rule from London, which the majority of Scots will greet with as much enthusiasm as they would having a bucket of cold sick emptied over their heads. Especially if, as Cameron has promised, there’s a referendum in 2017 about whether or not the UK remains a member of the European Union – and England votes to leave the EU while Scotland votes to stay in it.
But I very much doubt if The Independent’s enthusiasm for a continued David Cameron premiership (with Nick Clegg acting as Satan’s Little Helper) has really anything to do with the survival of the United Kingdom. It has likely more to do with the fact that, since 2010, the newspaper has been owned by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev. Yes, so much for the old ‘free from proprietorial influence’ blurb that the newspaper used to flaunt.
As Russian oligarchs go, Lebedev seems to be one of the nicer ones. Even so, I don’t think he was thrilled to hear Ed Miliband vow that, if elected, he would scrap tax exemption for Britain’s ultra-wealthy non-domiciled residents. As far as I know, Lebedev still lives in Russia – but I’m sure that if he fell out badly with Vladimir Putin, a tax-free existence in the UK would be an attractive alternative for him. An alternative he wouldn’t want Ed Miliband to spoil.
(c) The Guardian
As I said earlier, The Independent’s readership these days is perilously small. I suspect many of those remaining readers have kept loyal to it because, despite its many flaws, it’s that rare beast, a left-of-centre British newspaper. But do they want to stick with it now? I know I don’t.