PRESS

Breaking tradition

Britain’s newest daily makes its own rules

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 17 1988
PRESS

Breaking tradition

Britain’s newest daily makes its own rules

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 17 1988

Breaking tradition

PRESS

Britain’s newest daily makes its own rules

When Sarah, the Duchess of York, gave birth to her first child on Aug. 8, most British newspapers carried front-page headlines and photographs heralding the arrival of Princess Beatrice—with one striking exception. No report of the birth appeared on the front page of The Independent, Britain’s newest national daily, which last week—on Oct. 7— celebrated its second anniversary. Instead, the paper noted the delivery in only 17 words at the bottom of a column of brief items on page 2. Under the headline “Royal baby,” the complete report read simply: “The Duchess of York gave birth to a 6-lb., 12-oz. girl in a London hospital.”

The slight coverage of the event—ordered by Andreas Whittam Smith, The Independents 51-year-old editor and principal founder—astonished most other British editors, who seem to assume that their readers have an almost insatiable appetite for news of

the Royal Family. But it was characteristic of the new paper, which has become a remarkable success in the past two years in part by departing defiantly from many of the practices of the tradition-bound British press. With a daily circulation of 375,000, The Independent has been earning a profit since March, and last month, the paper launched a widely praised high-quality Saturday magazine. Although the newspaper’s circulation still falls short of that of its nearest rival— the 203-year-old Times, which sells 450,000 copies a day—many media experts say that The Independent has already set new standards of excellence. “It is a triumph,” said Hugh Stephenson, a professor of journalism at London’s City University. “It is so much better than The Times that it stands out like a beacon.”

And Whittam Smith—who was the lowprofile financial editor of The Daily Telegraph when he drew up plans for the new

paper in March, 1985—has quickly acquired a reputation as an innovative, though sometimes quirky, editor. Indeed, Whittam Smith said—with a smile—that he was annoyed when he read his paper’s coverage of the royal birth: “It was too long. I left instructions that it be no more than 10 words—but they included the weight of the baby.” Other papers, he added, demean the Royal Family by printing pages of gossipy detail about their private lives. “I am a royalist so I am completely against turning the Royal Family into a soap opera,” he said. “The monarchy should be the most dignified part of the constitution—but instead it has become Dynasty.”

The Independent has broken with other long-established British journalistic practices as well. Its political reporters do not take part in the so-called parliamentary lobby system, through which reporters regularly receive inside information on government actions on the understanding that they will not disclose the identity of their sources. Staff members are forbidden to accept free trips, meals or other gifts—a practice that is still common among British journalists, although most major North American news organizations have banned it. Nor does The Independent resort to using gimmicks to attract new readers. And, as its name suggests, The Independent maintains a determinedly nonaligned political stance. Its rivals generally back either Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party {The Times

and the Telegraph) or the opposition Labour Party (The Guardian).

But The Independents politics are an eclectic mix that Whittam Smith labels libertarian: right-of-centre on economics but often leftof-centre on social issues.

In last year’s general election, when Thatcher’s Tories won a third term in office, The Independent was the first serious British newspaper in decades not to endorse any party.

Perhaps the most important contrast between The Independent and its rivals is its ownership. British papers have traditionally been owned and run by wealthy press barons, including such Canadians as Roy Thomson,

Lord Thomson of Fleet and Lord Beaverbrook, as well as Australian-born Rupert Murdoch, whose worldwide media empire includes The Times. But Whittam Smith raised the $38 million needed to launch The Independent from 30 institutional investors, none of whom was allowed to buy more than a 10-per-cent share. As a result, the paper does not have a powerful proprietor who

might attempt to interfere with The Independent’s editorial operations. Said Stephenson: “The common wisdom was that to run a paper in Britain, you needed to be a bastard and a tycoon.” He added: “ The Independent

proves that a paper conceived and run by journalists can come in on time and on budget—and be a good product.”

Admirers of The Independent praise its comprehensive foreign coverage (it has 13 full-time bureaus outside of Britain), its attractive design and its use of high-quality photographs. Detractors claim that the paper frequently reacts too slowly to developing news stories and that it is too solemn and preachy—the satirical biweekly Private Eye calls it The Indescribably Boring. And some media analysts say that The Independent may be vulnerable if, as economists have predicted, the British economy slumps next year and advertisers cut their spending. But Whittam Smith said that he would continue to invest in quality journalism—and that he may introduce a Sunday edition in 1989. “If we were not risk-takers,” he declared last week, “we would never have launched the paper at all.”

ANDREW PHILLIPS in London