We guard our freedom

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The Independent Online
THESE have been difficult months for this newspaper and its sister, the Independent. Our future has been questioned, our editorial independence written off as a sanctimonious fantasy. Newspapers are a competitive business. Our rivals have not played soft-ball. The story of a resourceful band of journalists who founded an immensely successful newspaper and then came unstuck by arrogance and hubris, leading to their surrender to the tycoonery they sought to escape - such a story has its appeal, particularly to newspapers which were damaged by the Independent's appearance in 1986 and this title's in 1990.

It is not quite right. Our future is secure and our editorial independence is safe. What then is (or was) the problem? Simply - if simply is the word - money. We are a very small company, dedicated solely to the production of two newspapers. From their revenues, we must earn our living, in good times and bad. All our rivals, by contrast, can call on other resources - either from a wealthy proprietor or from other parts of a parent organisation. That is how the Times, the Guardian and the Observer survived the recession. Furthermore, lest it be said we blame everybody but ourselves, the company took risks and made mistakes. By the autumn of last year the choice was to cut costs so severely that we destroyed what we believe are first-rate newspapers, or to find another solution.

Here it may be proper to explain the grand plural pronoun. 'We' in this context means the editor and staff of this newspaper. The other 'we' are our shareholders, who had been brave enough to invest in an idea. Many became, shall we say, not happy. The two largest single investors, the companies which own La Repubblica in Italy and El Pais in Spain, are both fine and liberal newspapers as young as the Independent. They determined with the Independent's founders, led by Andreas Whittam Smith, that the best course was to form a consortium with a British newspaper group which could buy out the other shareholders, cut the company's non-editorial costs - contract printing, distribution and so on - and invest in good journalism, which is the cause of our success but does not come cheap.

Eventually, they settled on Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) as their partner, and together they bid for control of Newspaper Publishing plc. On Friday, the Department of Trade and Industry decided not to refer this bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The deal has been done. This year or next we shall begin to print on MGN presses; earlier, we shall use that company's distribution and advertising teams. Non-editorial jobs will be lost, and even though the redundancy terms are generous it is not merely an official nod of sympathy to say that this genuinely saddens every journalist employed here.

We will not, however, become a Mirror Group newspaper, and if we seem to protest too much that is only to try to correct the nonsense that has been written and talked of us. The editorial control and marketing of our two titles will remain with Newspaper Publishing. On the new board of the company, MGN will have only two out of seven directors representing a shareholding of between 25 and 30 per cent. They have renounced their right to play any part in the appointment or dismissal of editors. They have given guarantees of complete editorial independence. No single company has control of these newspapers and all three partners - La Repubblica, El Pais, MGN - are proprietor-free newspaper groups with multiple shareholders. It is, we believe, a healthy arrangement for a British quality newspaper.

A final word about a character who has loomed large in these negotiations: David Montgomery, chief executive of the Mirror Group. Mr Montgomery is not popular among journalists, having fired a good editor of the Daily Mirror and many others of its staff. Often, he is portrayed as the kind of Ulsterman you might find in a bowler hat, banging a drum in the Shankill road. All this is beside the point. Mr Montgomery has nothing to do with the editorial content of the Independent on Sunday. We are as free of interference as we have always been, and we believe that MGN's publishing resources will enable us to devote more money to good writing and photography and rigorous reporting - the things which have given these newspapers a world-wide reputation and which matter above all else to readers. The day that a quiet Ulster voice (or any other voice) tells us what to think, or how to write it, is the day that the 'we' in this column will change. With your support, we do not believe it will happen.

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