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David Lister: 'Twenty-five years is a long time in arts journalism'


I feel a little queasy about writing an anniversary piece, as I was in the room in August 1986 – two months before the launch of The Independent – when the founding editor Andreas Whittam Smith declared that one of the many ways in which we should break the mould was by avoiding anniversary journalism. Twenty-five years on and I'm still disobeying his instructions, although that particular pledge, to be fair, didn't last terribly long.

As you may have noticed on page six, I am one of the very small, imperfectly formed band that was there at the launch and has continued at the paper with unbroken service. I was there, as I say, well before launch, as we produced dummy newspapers, rang people up to get stories and had the inevitable conversation: "I'm from The Independent... no, not the local free one, a new national one... yes, honestly."

But somehow it all worked and to spread the word about the joy of being an Independent reader, we wore badges saying: "I am, are you?" The badges were worn by thousands of new readers of the fledgling paper and, we were later informed, by members of gay movements up and down the country. There was more than one reason for our marvellous, early gains in circulation.

In the days of a Murdoch-dominated press and a right-wing Tory government, we all thought there could be no nobler calling than working for a paper that espoused independence. I know that I, to my eternal embarrassment, once lectured the guy who sat next to me that he was mad to think of giving up a solid production job on The Independent to pursue some absurd fantasy about writing travel books. "There's no money in it, Bill," I assured the young Mr Bryson.

At the paper's launch I was an assistant home editor (nice title, shame about the salary). But after a couple of years I persuaded the paper that what it needed was an arts correspondent, which at that time required considerable powers of advocacy. I took on the role before later becoming arts editor.

Much of what The Independent pioneered in arts journalism back then has become so commonplace that it is hard to think there was a time it didn't exist. But full, daily listings of arts events did start with the Indy, as did various other flights of fancy that helped change how newspapers covered the arts – the daily poem, to take one example, eccentric or essential depending on your view.

I wrote this paper's first overnight review, on a whim actually, and after that it became a regular duty. It was an evening I will never forget, one that still brings me out in a cold sweat at the memory. Covent Garden was giving the British première of a Verdi opera, a newsworthy event to put it mildly, and Jose Carreras was in the title role. I managed to sneak backstage afterwards and intercepted Carreras on his way to the dressing room, his arms full of bunches of flowers thrown by adoring fans. So I asked, keen for a quote to be part of the review and knowing I had just a couple of minutes before I had to file: "how do you rate that opera?" He was polite and charming. "Well," he replied, sniffing his flowers. "It is not Don Carlos. " No," I agreed, urging him on. "Well, it is not Traviata," he said. "True, true," I said, the beads of sweat beginning to form. "Well, it is not Trovatore," he said. The realisation dawned. He's going to go through every opera that Verdi wrote. But eventually he formed a sentence about the experience and I ran to the nearest phone.

Ah, yes, the phone. In the days before laptops and email, we phoned the stuff in to a now departed breed called copytakers. Any young journalist who enjoyed pretensions of fine prose and self belief did not enjoy them for long in the age of copytakers. To be only a quarter way through dictating a piece to hear a weary sigh on the other end of the phone and the words "is there much more of this" kept your feet firmly on the ground. As did, of course, the unpredictable mishearings which always found their way into the paper under your byline. The RSC becoming the RAC was the least of it.

In the pre-internet days there was a cuttings library and one researched a piece with a mass of yellowing bits of paper on the desk. That was slower, but at least it was a time before the arts world was swarming with PRs and the agenda was set by journalists. Vinyl still ruled as did the multinational record companies. CDs were in their infancy, MP3 players,Amazon and YouTube were unheard of. The Lily Allens of that era couldn't create their own fame on MySpace. They had to rely on the likes of us. Particularly, they had to rely on critics, as the now ubiquitous preview features were far less common and critics dominated the space on newspaper arts pages more than today.

Of course, there was no Harry Potter to set an annual agenda in bookshops and cinemas, neither was there any form of multi-channel TV – no Sky, so no Sky Arts, no BBC 4 to give a dedicated, if niche, arts TV service. Instead, the controllers of main terrestrial channels saw it as their duty to provide a steady stream of arts programmes and even classic drama to a large, mainstream audience. There is room for discussion on whether things are now better or worse.

But in many other ways it was all surprisingly familiar. There was a constant stream of articles about Tory underfunding of the arts, the likes of Nicholas Serota and Nicholas Hytner were beginning to make their mark, the Turner Prize was studiedly "controversial", Phantom and Les Mis were the big hits in the West End, ticket prices were becoming obscenely high. The way the cultural landscape is reported is radically different from 25 years ago. The landscape itself is not so very different.