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My Trade: A short history of British journalism by Andrew Marr
Ivan Fallon looks back in wonder at the man at the helm of 'The Independent' during the lowest point in its fortunes
Sunday 12 September 2004
The scene, as Andrew Marr describes it in yet another book on the British media, was Tony O'Reilly's "grand home, Castlemartin, in Ireland". It was 1996 and Marr, newly appointed editor of The Independent, had arrived at the annual executive meeting of Independent News & Media, of which O'Reilly was executive chairman and major shareholder, to present his radical plans for a redesigned paper.
At the time he was, he says in his self-deprecating way, not only the youngest national broadsheet editor but "by a good margin the most idiotic". He was about to prove his point very effectively that very day. Although Marr had already established a reputation as a thoughtful and elegant writer on politics (for The Independent in particular), he had no experience of editing, as he was about to demonstrate.
Newspapers traditionally work on the principle that you put the most interesting - or newsy - item on the front page and work inwards from there. Marr decided to throw that principle - and all other established newspaper traditions and mores - to the winds. His new concept for a front page, which he presented with considerable eloquence and passion in Ireland, was a single poster-style image, with a short essay running around it setting out "everything essential a busy reader needed to know".
The idea, he explained to us, was to ask what newspapers might look like today if they had never been invented before. That applied to design as well as news stories, which were to be grouped by subject rather than geographically. Marr had even eschewed the use of The Independent's designers to bring in his own, a man who he explained "had designed everything except a newspaper".
With great élan he showed us the result: a front page with the barrel of a gun running from top to bottom. Around it was a feature on gun crime - and nothing else. Marr explained that it had all been deeply researched with readers, both existing and potential, who wanted something dramatically different and after much thought and effort, he reckoned he had found it. I was merely an interested observer that day, my own turn under the spotlight to come later when I was due to present to the same group on the South African side of the business. But I can remember clearly thinking: either I'm completely out of date and should forget everything I've ever learned; or this is a disaster. Alas for The Independent, then jointly owned by the Mirror Group and Independent News & Media (but managed by the Mirror), it was the latter.
O'Reilly, as Marr describes it, was delicate in his put-down. Privately he told Marr he thought the redesign was bold and daring and he personally liked it. "On the other hand," he added slowly, "I thought exactly the same about New Coke." It was, as Marr instantly realised, "a gentle way to let me know I had boobed".
I watched from afar as Marr turned his experiment, now watered down somewhat, into reality. Sales, already under pressure from Rupert Murdoch's price war, collapsed in one of the most calamitous slides in newspaper history. The newspaper plunged into crisis, only to be rescued when O'Reilly stepped in and bought the other 50 per cent two years later.
It wasn't all Marr's fault, of course. He has a fine, original mind and genuinely believed he could break new ground with an upmarket, intellectual paper which he saw as the non-financial equivalent of the Financial Times. But he never learned to cope either with his staff or with his bosses at the Mirror who made his life miserable beyond belief. No intervention by Tony O'Reilly could save him, and he is less than generous to the Irish executives who risked a great deal for him and who deserve better now. In particular his remarks concerning my predecessor have gone down like a lead balloon.
It has taken the success of The Independent compact, and some pioneering front pages which do what Marr distantly glimpsed from his sometimes inspired but amateurish viewpoint, to recover the ground lost in the brief period when Marr was at the helm.
Marr's description of that period, graphically serialised in a rival newspaper under the banner "The editorship of The Independent in 1996 was less a poisoned chalice than a pint of lukewarm ricin", makes up the central chunk of this rather odd book, which is part history, part autobiography and part "How to" as in "How to be a columnist" (one of his chapter sub-heads). That means, despite Marr's relaxed prose style, keen memory and some amusing anecdotes, that it does none of them very satisfactorily.
The Independent chapter, for instance, suddenly jerks from the gripping account of Marr's battles with David Montgomery, the Mirror chief whom he absolutely despises (he is far from alone around the Independent building), Charlie Wilson, former Times editor, and Kelvin MacKenzie, ex-editor of The Sun, to a new sub-head: "How to Read a Newspaper" (I kid you not). This includes a list of further sub-headings such as "Read small stories and attend to page two..."
Another little quirk, a more harmless version of Marr's front-page folly, is to abandon the use of an index. It is not an oversight or due to time or cost pressure, but a deliberate omission. Why? Because he wants readers to treat it as a "reflective and relaxed book" rather than a reference source. In fact, it makes it irritating and frustrating.
Marr says in his acknowledgements that the agent Ed Victor helped him bring a thin idea to a fat conclusion. At least he got the thin bit right.
Ivan Fallon is Chief Executive of Independent News and Media UK, owners of 'The Independent' and 'Independent on Sunday'
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