The Independent: Reflections on the last 20 years

Twenty years ago today, the first issue of 'The Independent' rolled off the presses. For the three men who risked their careers to make it happen - and the 200 others they had recruited to the cause - it was the realisation of an audacious dream. Stephen Glover, one of the founders, relives the day the paper was born

Monday 6 October 1986. I don't remember what the weather was like, or how bad the traffic was as I drove to work. I can't recall what I had for lunch, or whether I even had any. But I can still re-live the sense of nervous elation we had on that morning 20 years ago today, a feeling bordering on incredulity that we were about to produce Britain's first new quality national newspaper for - so our car stickers claimed - 131 years.

Twenty years have passed, but anyone who was present that day in our office in City Road, on the edge of the City of London, will recapture that sense of wonder and of joy.

On one level, though, there was a feeling almost of ordinariness. For weeks we had been producing dummy issues; many had been printed, and some sent out for market research. The Independent's journalists felt this was another day they could cope with.

By now we had acquired our own generator, following two power cuts in quick succession a few weeks previously. The new computer system, after early teething troubles, had been working well, though some journalists played safe and arrived at the office earlier than usual that morning, anxiously peering into their computer screens to reassure themselves that some carefully prepared story had not been wiped during the night.

The previous evening there had been advertisements on television, the work of Saatchi and Saatchi. A young man is repeatedly hit on the head with a newspaper as we hear opinionated voices in the background. "In our opinion." Smack. "But in our opinion." Another smack. (Hang on. Isn't this a bit violent?) And then a smooth, reassuring voice tells us about a wonderful new newspaper that will somehow escape the sins of this fallen world. "From October 7. The Independent. It is. Are you?"

There can be no doubt that the thing will happen - that the next day people will go into a shop, or pause by a newsstand on the way to the station or bus stop, and buy a copy of a newspaper that has not existed before. It will happen, and yet at a deeper level it is still almost impossible to believe.

***

The story had begun some 18 months earlier when Andreas Whittam Smith, then the City editor of The Daily Telegraph, was telephoned by an American magazine journalist. He wanted to know whether Andreas thought Today, Eddy Shah's planned mid-market tabloid, would succeed. Almost without thinking, he said it wouldn't, but when he put down the receiver he thought again. Why shouldn't Shah prosper if he could take full advantage of the significantly lower costs of new technology and reduced manning levels? And if Shah could successfully launch a paper into the middle market, why couldn't someone do the same in the quality market?

Andreas asked a City friend whether it might be possible to raise the money. The answer was yes. He mentioned his idea to Matthew Symonds, a much younger junior colleague who wrote leaders for The Daily Telegraph, as well as a column for Andreas' financial pages. A couple of months later, Matthew invited me, a friend and colleague on the paper, to join their discussions.

Over the next few months we would meet in the evenings and at weekends, usually at Andreas' house in Kensington, to plan what was provisionally called the Nation. We were still employees of the Telegraph, which was slipping from the hands of the Berry family into the eager grasp of Conrad Black, a Canadian tycoon then unknown in Britain. What we had in mind was rather different from the stately, restrained newspaper that graced the newsstands on 7 October 1986. Andreas' original vision was of a kind of "yuppie" Daily Telegraph with many pages of colour.

The new paper may have been Andreas' idea, and in due course he became The Independent's first editor, but it was Matthew who drove us on that summer and early autumn of 1985. Andreas still had half an eye on becoming the next editor of The Daily Telegraph; at 48 he was quite old to be taking the risk of launching a new paper, and he had more to lose than either of us. It was Matthew who, more often than not, arranged the next meeting, who found Douglas Long, our first chief executive, and put us in touch with Marcus Sieff, our first chairman. He and I were later to have our differences, but I still believe with something approaching certainty that without him the enterprise would have guttered and been blown out in its infancy.

Andreas now seized his destiny. There were countless meetings, which we fitted in with our work at the Telegraph. Saatchi and Saatchi helped us produce a business plan. We visited printing plants, and found offices at 40 City Road, an ugly modern block that had at its feet Bunhill Fields, a beautiful old graveyard for non-conformists such as William Blake and John Bunyan. By Christmas 1985 a venture capital firm called Stephen Rose and Partners had almost raised £2m. On 27 December the Financial Times carried a front-page leak about the planned newspaper, and Andreas, Matthew and I resigned from The Daily Telegraph.

Just over nine months later the paper was launched. By April a further £16m had been raised through a merchant bank called Charterhouse Japhet, and de Zoete and Bevan, a stockbroker. We only just scraped home, helped by the superhuman efforts of Bruce Fireman, a director at Charterhouse. Here was another person without whom The Independent might never have happened. One of the last investments, nearly 5 per cent of the company, was made though a nominee company of which no one had heard, by the name of Lancashire and Yorkshire. This turned out to be a front for Robert Maxwell, the bloated buccaneer and (as it turned out) corrupt newspaper tycoon who owned Mirror Group Newspapers.

Maxwell was the epitome of everything The Independent (it had been given its new name in January; several people claim to have coined it) was trying to get away from, and it was a blow when we found out about his covert shareholding. One of the boasts of the fledgling newspaper was that it was not owned by Maxwell or Rupert Murdoch, who had bought The Times five years earlier, and taken it downmarket. Later I came to see the advantages of good proprietors.

***

What else did we believe? It is astonishing how many of the defining hallmarks of The Independent were acquired during the next few months, as we recruited some 200 journalists and imbibed their best ideas. Many journalists had come from the Murdoch-owned Times and Sunday Times. The entire industrial team of Don Macintyre, Dave Felton and Barrie Clement defected from The Times. Others from the same paper included John Price, Bill Bryson, Nick Ashford and Christopher Gilbert. Isabel Hilton and Peter Wilby had been among those who jumped ship at The Sunday Times. Most of them believed that Murdoch had been lowering journalistic standards at both titles. All were unhappy about the forced move to Wapping after Murdoch had broken the trade unions in January 1986. Their exodus had given The Independent a new credibility, and encouraged journalists from other papers to join what was becoming a small stampede.

Andreas used the apt image of conducting an orchestra, of drawing out the best in everyone. Someone suggested (there are again competing claims) that the paper should stay out of the parliamentary lobby, the system whereby political reporters received Downing Street briefings that could be attributed only to "Government sources". Andreas picked up the notion that we should eschew royal stories. As dummies were prepared in late August and throughout September, we began to project photographs in a much more exciting way than our rivals. Several people also assert authorship of this idea.

There were heated debates over the paper's design. By June we had produced a fledgling dummy, full of colour pictures and chunky headlines that corresponded quite closely to The Independent's original concept. Yet the restrained and elegant newspaper published on 7 October looked very different - more part of the past than the future. Thomas Sutcliffe, the first arts editor, who is still working for the paper 20 years later, described it as "classic with a twist", borrowing a phrase used about the clothes of the fashion guru Paul Smith. The man who introduced the "classic", and dreamt up the eagle on the masthead, was a designer called Nicholas Thirkell, but he did not have an easy time of it. There were rows, stormings out, and bitter fights before the calm, measured Independent finally emerged. Even now, authorities disagree as to whom should claim the most credit.

One afternoon, a few weeks before launch, there was a power cut, the second in a matter of days, though the London Electricity Board had informed us that we could expect one every nine years. An unfortunate building worker had put his drill through a cable. The same boom that had given the City the confidence to invest in The Independent, the boom that would give new readers the money to buy the newspaper and advertisers the scope to advertise in it - this boom was washing up City Road, sweeping down inoffensive late Victorian buildings for shiny new offices.

We didn't have a generator - an oversight rectified within a week or two - so our computers went down. As the day wore on with no sign that electricity was going to be restored, a few journalists began to grumble that it was a waste of time for us to hang around, since even if the power came back there would be no time to complete the day's dummy. It was getting dark now, and a spectral figure could just be made out as Andreas glided into the newsroom. To the disappointment of some, he said we couldn't go home. In less than three weeks we were launching a new national newspaper, and we might find ourselves in a similar predicament, so we had to stay in case the electricity came on (it didn't) and we could produce at least a few pages.

Patrick Marnham, just about to leave to be our correspondent in Paris, was standing next to me in the shadows. "He's completely right," he murmured. "Completely right." I said nothing in reply. But I thought to myself: "This man is a leader."

By 6 October 1986 we had come a long way in a few months. Some rather mysterious creative process had taken place in a very short period of time. The paper that was to appear the following day certainly had its shortcomings: it was said by some commentators to be heavy and a little worthy. But few people denied that it was also remarkably distinguished, and had a quiet authority, a sense, almost, of having been always there.

***

The day begins like any other. There is a sense of calm, of people going about their business as they always have, broken only by a slightly uncertain chorus of: "Here we go, here we go, here we go" erupting from the sports desk at the far end of the newsroom. Jonathan Fenby, the paper's first home editor, an energetic and bustling man, recalls: "We were used to doing the paper. We had a feeling that we could turn it out."

Almost everyone to whom I have spoken for this article says the same. Because we had been producing dummies for so long, it was, in a practical sense, just another day. Talking to Independent journalists who were there, it is interesting how few specific memories most of them have. They go on in general terms about the excitement, even the sense of being part of history, but they usually remember rather little. My only advantage is that I once wrote a book about it all that has helped me not to forget.

At the morning conference the news seems rather thin. Andreas sits, bent forward, pencil in hand, studying the news list as though it is some inscrutable Sanskrit text from which some further meaning might yet be extracted. Fenby reads out his relatively unspectacular offerings. The Tory party conference begins in Bournemouth tomorrow, but there seem to be few excitements. As foreign editor I read an equally unexceptional foreign list. Patrick Marnham is with the Pope in southern France. James Fenton has done a piece about cooking a goat for Muslim rebels in the Philippines.

A casual visitor might conclude that we had been doing this all our lives. The only oddity is the television cameras, which begin to infuriate Andreas. He suddenly flares up that they will have to be taken away unless the TV crew stops chattering. "We are trying to produce a newspaper," he says.

In the afternoon a bottle of champagne arrives for Andreas from the editor of The Daily Telegraph with a note. It reads: "With the compliments and best wishes of everyone at The Daily Telegraph, who wish you luck before we set about buying you! Max Hastings, October 6th 1986." Andreas' office is bedecked with flowers.

At the early-evening news conference it becomes clear that there will be no great scoop to mark The Independent's first day. Mark Urban, our defence correspondent, has a small exclusive about a Soviet submarine that has sunk in the Atlantic Ocean. Sarah Hogg, the business editor, and Andrew Marr, a young political reporter, will co-operate on a story about the latest sterling crisis. The piece by Patrick Marnham about the Pope makes the "basement" slot at the bottom. There are three other stories.

James Fenton is given a good run on the extensive foreign pages. William Rees-Mogg, our "star" columnist, though he has not written a regular column for many years, has an article on the leader page about the BBC. Andreas has been persuaded to write a mini-manifesto on page two. "We have deliberately eschewed difference for its own sake," runs the second paragraph, "for by example resisting the temptation of being the first 'quality tabloid' or by over-using editorial colour." (In fact there was none.) On independence Andreas writes: "We will both praise and criticise without reference to a party line."

It is not a sensational first issue, but it will do. The lack of a scoop, Jonathan Fenby now observes, was a kind of advantage, helping to reinforce the impression that this was just another day, almost as though The Independent had been around for a long time and no one had noticed it.

Looking back, I am proud that so many established, in some cases quite famous journalists, their names too numerous to mention here, had taken the risk of joining us. I am also amazed by how many talented young journalists, then obscure or unknown, had been attracted to the cause. The list includes - I am bound inadvertently to omit a name or two - Andrew Marr, Francis Wheen, Mark Urban, Sebastian Faulks, Mark Lawson, John Lichfield, Simon Carr and Simon Kelner, then the deputy sports editor, who later was to become the editor of this newspaper.

They and everyone else had been drawn to an ideal, the shining city on the hill, which many journalists had dreamed of, but never thought would happen. In the end the dream of The Independent would have to accommodate itself to the realities of life, but on that day 20 years ago, and for the weeks and months afterwards, journalists and non-editorial staff worked for a newspaper that they thought of as their own, without counting the cost, or complaining about their exhaustion.

Most of that evening I spent darting in and out of my tiny office in the foreign department. We thought - and we did! - that we were going to produce the best foreign pages in Fleet Street. People are working away quietly. I can see two faces in particular - those of Nick Ashford, the deputy foreign editor, and Christopher Gilbert, as assistant foreign editor. Nick died of cancer in 1990, Christopher of the same disease in 2004. They both gave themselves to the early Independent, and I doubt anything mattered more to them in their careers.

***

There were very few production difficulties that evening. The front page was faxed to our four printing plants a little late, just after 10pm. This was wondrous new technology. The work that had been done noisily by hundreds of men at The Daily Telegraph was quietly accomplished by a handful of people in the air-conditioned computer room.

After the first edition, there is a party and champagne. Shortly after midnight, copies of the paper arrive at City Road from Sittingbourne, the nearest of our contract printers to London. It looks fine but there is nothing other than the price (25p) and Vol. I, both below the masthead, to distinguish the paper from the dummies that have gone before. Jonathan Fenby recalls Matthew sitting on the floor, poring over a copy.

Andreas suddenly says: "It's time for a toast - I am going to propose a toast." He makes a short speech, thanking everyone for their hard work, and then raises his glass and says: "To The Independent." There is a roar of approval, and people start singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Lots of people ask the three editorial founders and others to sign first editions.

Later I go down to the computer room and ask Brian Hutt, our circulation manager, how the printing is going. On the whole, not too badly. He says that he does not believe that circulation will ever drop below 400,000. This prediction proves to be optimistic, and sales fall to 256,923 in January before beginning a long climb.

Sebastian Faulks remembers the badges some people wore at the party. "I am. Are you?" (These later became a collector's item for homosexuals. For other reasons, Sebastian still has one on his desk.) Simon Kelner recalls the industrial quantities of alcohol that were drunk that night, and even strange liaisons. Simon Carr remembers how exhausted everyone was. Despite the appearance of normality during the day, the sense that we were only doing what we had done before, people were more stressed than they had seemed.

We are all tired. It is a big thing launching a new newspaper. How extraordinary it is; for many people, for me perhaps, this night may mark the most precious moment of their careers. And yet I feel an edge of anticlimax. Matthew comes up and half embraces me. I congratulate Andreas, and tell him that his is a very great achievement.

The next day will bring the news that we had a complete print run of 650,000 copies, all of which were sold. The Sunday Times' columnist Simon Jenkins will tell the listeners of Radio 4's Today programme that The Independent looks worthy. In the morning a wreath will arrive from Max Hastings bearing the inscription: "With compliments from all at The Daily Telegraph." Someone suggests that this wreath, made up of bright yellow and white flowers, and trailing a black ribbon, be laid on John Bunyan's rectangular grave in Bunhill Fields, which it is. The Independent does not die.

The next months, as circulation drops and money threatens to run out, are anxious ones. Further ahead there is success, even adulation, as The Independent, beyond our wildest hopes, becomes the newspaper of the liberal Establishment. It starts to appear (unpaid for by us) in television advertisements and posters because retailers and businessmen want to be associated with it. Young people carry the paper as a kind of badge, the beautiful chiselled masthead with its eagle angled outwards so that everyone can see they are Independent readers, that they too have rallied to the cause.

Further ahead still there are difficulties and disappointments, and dissention among the founders. Slowly, and no doubt inevitably, The Independent will one day adjust itself to the real world.

All that lies ahead. Tired, and probably drunk, as we were, most of us who were there on that night knew that we were part of something special that we would never forget - one of the most important days in our lives.

The first 20 years

1985

Andreas Whittam Smith, City editor of The Daily Telegraph, conceives idea of an independent newspaper, and enlists help of fellow-journalists Matthew Symonds and Stephen Glover.

January 1986

Newspaper Publishing plc, the holding company for The Independent, is formed. The capital comes from more than 30 financial institutions.

7 October 1986

The first issue of The Independent appears.

1987

The Independent is named Newspaper of the Year in British Press Awards.

23 January 1990

The first issue of The Independent on Sunday appears, edited by Stephen Glover.

November 1990

El País and la Repubblica become minority shareholders in The Independent.

May 1991

Ian Jack becomes editor of The Independent on Sunday.

August 1994

Whittam Smith and Symonds leave. Ian Hargreaves appointed editor of The Independent.

December 1994

The Independent moves to Canary Wharf.

April 1995

Jack resigns. Peter Wilby appointed editor of The Independent on Sunday.

May 1995

Independent News and Media and Mirror Group Newspapers become controlling shareholders of The Independent.

January 1996

Hargreaves leaves, and is replaced by acting editor of The Independent, Charles Wilson.

May 1996

Andrew Marr appointed editor of The Independent.

January 1998

Marr makes way for Rosie Boycott to become editor of The Independent.

March 1998

Sir Anthony O'Reilly's Independent News & Media becomes sole owner of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. Rosie Boycott and Andrew Marr are appointed joint editors of The Independent.

April 1998

Boycott leaves to become editor of the Daily Express.

May 1998

Simon Kelner (left) takes over as editor. Andrew Marr leaves.

July 1998

Kim Fletcher appointed editor of The Independent on Sunday.

July 1999

Fletcher replaced by Janet Street-Porter. (right)

August 2000

The Independent moves to Marsh Wall, at South Quay.

April 2001

Tristan Davies replaces Street-Porter as editor of The Independent on Sunday. Street-Porter becomes editor-at-large.

September 2002

Ivan Fallon is appointed chief executive of Independent News & Media (UK).

30 September 2003

The first compact edition of The Independent creates a new model for quality newspapers worldwide.

May 2004

The Independent only available as a compact. December 2004

The Independent named Newspaper of the Year in British Press Awards.

October 2005

The Independent on Sunday goes compact.

7 October 2006

The Independent celebrates its 20th anniversary.

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