The Guardian's coverage of last week's sale of the two Independent titles to Alexander Lebedev was characteristically charitable. By that I mean characteristically uncharitable. The paper highlighted Mr Lebedev's past as a former KGB agent, and suggested that the sale of the papers for one pound to such a man was somehow a betrayal of their original values.
Perhaps as one of The Independent's three journalistic founders in 1986 I might be allowed a word on that last point. The dream of a profitable, non-partisan newspaper free of proprietorial control has been dead for many years. To be precise, it died when Mirror Group Newspapers became dominant shareholders in the titles in 1995. We could argue whether, if mistakes had not been made, the dream could have been sustained, but the fact is that it collapsed long ago.
And, as it happens, the Independent titles have been fortunate with proprietors. I exclude Mirror Group, which never quite got the point of The Independent, but its partner, Dublin-based Independent News and Media (INM), certainly did, and was able to call the shots after gaining control in 1998. Naturally errors were made – costs could have been cut earlier; and I have always thought the titles should have maintained a wider political appeal – but INM have been good proprietors, and this paper and its Sunday sister owe the company's former controlling shareholder and chief executive, Sir Tony O'Reilly, a great debt.
As for Mr Lebedev, his one-time links to the KGB are beside the point. They belong to another world, as does the launch of The Independent. In the world we inhabit he is an enormously rich man who wants to run good newspapers. He is part owner of one of the very few independent titles in Russia, and last year acquired the London Evening Standard. His record as a newspaper publisher suggests he believes in journalism and freedom and democracy, and I would have thought that the original values of this newspaper were as safe in his hands as in anyone's.
So our friends at The Guardian need not fret on that score. My worries are quite different. In its twenty-three-and-a-half year life, The Independent has only made a profit for one, possibly two, years. Its habit of losing money does not make it unique. I doubt The Times has been profitable during a single year since Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1981, and figures released last week suggest that it lost at least £70m, possibly as much as £85m, in the 12 months to June 2009. The Guardian's annual losses are running at about £30m. The Independent is said to have lost £12m last year.
Of course, to read the lordly put-downs of this newspaper in The Guardian or The Times, you would think its finances were in some freakish category of their own. Journalists on those titles apparently believe that the Scott Trust and Rupert Murdoch respectively will bankroll them for ever. I wouldn't be so sure. (For the sake of all newspapers, I am praying that Mr Murdoch's plans, announced last week, to erect an online paywall around The Times and The Sunday Times will succeed, though I have my doubts.) Those who cherish The Independent would be wise to take a more hard-headed approach to its finances.
How easy it would be to say that, as Mr Lebedev is a billionaire, he can keep The Independent and its sibling going for as long as he likes out of petty cash. In the bleak times in which we live, where most quality newspapers are losing money and none can be certain of a long-term future, it is no longer safe to rely on a munificent sugar daddy, as The Times, The Guardian and (let's be honest) The Independent have done for too long.
I don't think Mr Lebedev is a sugar daddy, and I hope he has not acquired The Independent as a trophy to stick on his mantelpiece. I believe that this newspaper will only be secure if it can break even. Surely it is obvious that the present model is never going to be commercially viable. Left alone, the paper will continue to wither, as The Times and The Guardian are continuing to wither, each rather magnificent in its way, but each dangerously, and potentially fatally, far from profitability.
Here The Independent has one advantage, which is that, unlike its rivals, it has already substantially reduced its costs, though there may well be more work to be done. Its disadvantage is to have fewer sales, and therefore more ground to make up. Marketing, vital though it is, cannot achieve this alone. There has been talk of making the paper free in some metropolitan centres and of cutting its cover price as a promotional tool. Both are exciting options, conveying the realisation that things cannot go on as they are. No doubt other radical ideas are necessary.
Will The Independent be around in 10 or 20 years' time? Only if it acquires the habit of not losing money. I would say exactly the same about The Guardian and The Times. Mr Lebedev and his son Evgeny, who will be chairman of the new company owning the Independent titles, come with fresh ideas and open minds, though they have limited experience of British newspapers, and may be forgiven if they feel they have too many people bellowing advice in their ears. The future of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday lies in their hands.
Mr Cameron's coarse new best friend may become a liability
Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, does not obviously look like a thug. It is the shaven-haired heavies surrounding him who make you queasy. I wonder whether people are having similar thoughts about David Cameron on account of his new best friend, The Sun.
Like some over-zealous sidekick, the paper feels obliged not only to cheer its new hero at every opportunity but also to put the boot into his political adversaries whenever possible. Its post-Budget headline last Thursday did this with such crudity that even the Tory leader must have winced: "Darling just screwed more people than JT, Ashley, Mark Owen and Tiger Woods".
This from a paper once proud of its front page headlines such as "Gotcha" and "Will the last person to leave Britain please turn off the light?" and "Freddie Starr ate my hamster". The Sun's editorials, which only a few months ago defended Gordon Brown, now describe him and New Labour in vituperative terms. If I were a floating voter who read the paper, I might be put off the Tories by such coarse and clunking propaganda.