Hang around long enough at Lillie's Bordello in Dublin and you learn a thing or two. I think it was around three in the morning when Eamon Dunphy, who played for Millwall and could drink and argue for Ireland, asked me what kind of stories I intended to publish in The Independent on Sunday when I got back to London to start my new job. I was young, I was green, and let's face it, I was slightly the worse for wear. What would I run? Why, "important stories", that's what. "No, not important stories," said Dunphy, "interesting ones."
You get a lot of advice as a newspaper editor. The great Andreas Whittam Smith advised me that when it did end, as it must end, it would end in tears. The late Elkan Allan once advised me never to publish photographs of spiders, as they scared the readers. My inspirational boss, Simon Kelner, advised me that the IoS was a bit of a poisoned chalice, and I was just the man to drink from it. My mother advised me of the folly of our leader lines (she once opened her front door to me saying, "Your father and I do not wish to discuss the Iraq war.").
The worst bit of advice I ever had was also the most inspirational: "Never start a campaign you can't finish, never start a fight you can't win." If I may paraphrase the current, silver-tongued editor of The Independent, what utter bollocks. Mental illness isn't the most popular of causes, and at times our Mental Health Campaign seemed like a lost cause. But we stuck at it and blocked amendments to the Mental Health Bill that would have made it all too easy to lock up the vulnerable and throw away the key.
The Sindy has always taken on all-comers – bigger, heavier and uglier to a man. On paper, we never stood a chance. Fewer sections, smaller budgets, little promotion. But we landed some good punches. Above all, we kept coming out fighting.
I joined the IoS shortly before 9/11, which cast its long shadow over my years in the editor's chair. The countdown to war with Iraq saw the paper at its campaigning best. We were convinced there were no WMDs, so we said so. We believed there should be no war without a second UN resolution, so we said so. And when I watched a million march against the war in London, I knew we were not alone.
We screwed things up, of course. Or rather, I did. I still regret running a splash in which a highly placed police source asserted that Diana was pregnant at the time of her death. The story stood up and sales shot up, but I knew it was a bit of a flyer, and not very Independent on Sunday.
Over the years the fights kept getting bigger, but the paper kept getting smaller. By the time I left, we were down to one big paper and one big magazine. But forget the size, feel the quality. The Sindy still wins every environmental award under the sun. The New Review is a thing of beauty. And it's never lost sight of what's important: the words – and the people who write them, sub-edit them, headline and project them. They know who they are. I was immensely privileged to have worked with them. And I salute them.
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