The Independent and journalism that keeps business people awake at night

There was something about the spirit, élan and approach of the Indy and IoS City pages that appealed

Given the antecedents of The Independent’s founding editor, Andreas Whittam Smith, it was hardly a surprise that so much effort went into the fledgling paper’s City coverage. 

Andreas, a distinguished City editor of The Daily Telegraph, made sure that from the outset his new newspaper gained a reputation for the breadth and depth of its business journalism. For a paper that occupied a liberal centre-ground politically, this might have seemed strange – only the rightist titles paid detailed attention to finance and the markets. 

But The Independent has always brought its own take to the subject. It was questioning and sceptical, preferring to do its own digging into stories and not relying on the say-so of the company concerned. This approach was laid down by Andreas and was quickly encapsulated in the treatment of the Guinness scandal – which by happy timing coincided with the paper’s early days. 

Jeremy Warner left the rest of Fleet Street trailing with a series of exclusives that rivals could not match. The Independent quickly established itself as an alternative to the Financial Times. The positioning was further strengthened by the quality of its reporting and analysis of the second big scandal of the era, that of Robert Maxwell’s plundering of the Mirror Group pension fund.

Again, the paper’s business section led from the front. There was not just Jeremy – The Independent had assembled a star-studded roster of financial journalists. For that reason, when I had the opportunity of joining the organisation in 1992, I jumped at the chance. Three papers had been interested in me: the FT, Mail on Sunday and Independent on Sunday. Like its daily sibling, the latter was also carving out a place for itself as a fearless business journal, not afraid to shine a light on more nefarious activities, readily prepared to stand up to threats of libel from mighty corporations and their wealthy bosses. Even though it meant working for a paper that was still a newcomer relative to the others and therefore less secure, and taking a cut in salary, I chose the IoS. 

There was something about the spirit, élan and approach of the Indy and IoS City pages that appealed (I soon found myself writing for both titles). The standpoint that saw the Indy eschew the lobby briefings in Parliament and not indulge in royalty reporting or celebrity tittle-tattle spilled over into business. It was in the DNA. So no, we did not accept corporate junkets – the paper paid its own fares. We did not write up just what was on the press release but scrutinised between the lines. We were encouraged to study original documents – to not take the spin doctor’s word but to look for ourselves and form our own view.

I arrived, literally at the highest point in the Indy’s history. On my first day, we were called together, all the staff, to the newsroom to raise a glass to the fact that in the just-finished 1992 election the Indy had overtaken The Times with sales of more than 440,000. We did not know so at the time but that tally was never to be seen again.

It was also a different age. Compliance was an unheard of word; companies were run by buccaneers who made good copy and liked to do things their way – titans such as Lord Weinstock at GEC, Tiny Rowland at Lonrho and his foe Mohamed Fayed at Harrods, Lords Hanson and White, Sir Richard Branson, Lord Sugar, Sir Owen Green at BTR, and Sir James Goldsmith. Takeover bids were often hostile, frequently involving the chucking of mud dug up by corporate sleuths, and the taking out of adverts attacking the other side. Politicians were sometimes delighted to please – asking a loaded question in return, it transpired later, for a bung.  

Gradually, however, things changed. The Guinness affair and the subsequent jailing of some of those involved, all of them star City names, shocked a financial community that until then had seen itself as relatively impervious to the law and scrutiny of others. 

In 1991 a retail cavalier, Gerald Ratner, in an off-guarded moment, described one of his products as “crap”. His comment was reported, and his world caved in. His standing and that of the Ratners jewellery chain were damaged beyond repair. Ratner’s peers saw what had occurred and vowed not to be similarly caught out – the heavy, controlling hand of the public relations adviser was in the ascendant. 

But the spirit of The Independent’s business coverage has sustained. We were never nor ever will be respecters of reputations and apparent success. Anyone in business seeking our praise has to earn it. Other papers’ opinions are easy to call, but not The Independent’s. Its line-up of columnists and writers has always maintained a waspish, disbelieving stance.

It always comes as a surprise to learn that a City establishment figure takes The Independent and loves its business pages. They are meant to read The Daily Telegraph, Times or FT – not The Independent. But those with more of a social conscience liked it for pursuing overpaid bankers, rapacious commodities traders, shameless tax avoiders and short-term fund managers. In a strange way, perhaps, reading the Indy’s business pages made them feel better about themselves.

While other papers indulge in mutual back-slapping and celebratory high fives with billionaires and other capitalist kings, the Indy holds a jaundiced view. As others host grand parties for business leaders or publish rich lists or accompanied them on press trips, The Independent keeps its distance.

The print product is no more but its business journalism will live on online and on the app (thanks to writers of the calibre of Hamish McRae, James Moore, Ben Chu and Jim Armitage). The ne’er do wells of finance will still be unable to sleep easy at night, knowing that The Independent is on their case.    

Chris Blackhurst was Senior Business Writer, Independent on Sunday, 1992-93; Westminster Correspondent, Independent and Independent on Sunday, 1993-96; Deputy Editor, Independent and Independent on Sunday, 1997-98; Editor, The Independent, 2011-13

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