Leading Article: Newspapers do have a purpose

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The Independent Online
AN EDITORIAL column in a newspaper is, when you come to think of it, a strange piece of work. There it stands in all its anonymous glory, day after day (in our case week after week), criticising governments, chastising politicians, and with luck illuminating those noisy caverns known as the great issues of the day. Hardly any other part of any British newspaper remains anonymous: the days of "By Our Special Correspondent" went out with half-crowns and furlongs. The most routine television programme will scroll up at the end to reveal the names of the guy who made the tea and the girl who sent the fax. Films never forget to mention the focus- puller. Magazines usually begin with an unconvincingly intimate letter from the publisher or editor. Newspapers, however, like to keep their editorials unsigned. There is a mixture of reasons. Some are more honourable than others. Anonymity spares the writer personal embarrassment if he or she (though there are very few shes in this particular bit of journalism) delivers an opinion that later proves indefensible. Anonymity permits many writers to feel friskier and more judgemental than the personal responsibility of a byline might allow. Anonymity also encourages the magisterial instinct - the tablets of stone syndrome - when, as has often been said, a name and address appended at an editorial's end would make the opinions contained in it no more or less significant and interesting than a good reader's letter. Why Major must go ... your sincerely, A Jaspan, the Wee Hoose 'mang the Heather, London N8.

Those are probably the bad reasons. The good reason is that an editorial is, or should be, the voice of the newspaper. This is a hackneyed phrase and also, in an era when newspapers are seen increasingly as "products" that need to be "marketed", an often inappropriate metaphor. Newspapers when seen as products pure and simple do not have voices. They are inanimate objects - part of the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) market, according to the marketeers - that derive their identity in the public mind from the devices of labelling, public relations, advertising, stunts, wheezes and competitions. A newspaper's journalistic culture, which is what (proprietors allowing) supplies its voice, can easily get buried under this kind of junk, sometimes almost literally; see the tabloid front pages where even Elizabeth Hurley's breasts have been squeezed out by the sheer press of competitions and free scratch cards - your chance to win £50,000. No newspaper - broadsheet, tabloid, local, the Financial Times, the Independent on Sunday - is immune. The British newspaper industry is fiercely competitive, today on a hysterical scale that is sometimes frightening for the people who work in it, as well as for those who care about private and public values in a country appropriately known by Gore Vidal as Vulgaria. The competition exists because there are so many titles: 22 national papers published from London, more than 1,300 regionals and locals. That multiplicity of titles exists, at least partly, because new technologies made newspapers cheaper to produce. Rupert Murdoch pioneered this industrial change, but it has hardly led, as Mr Murdoch promised, to a thousand different blooms of consumer choice. More newspapers have competed by being more rather than less like each other; ruthless price-cutting has undermined the idea that a newspaper can hold an audience's loyalty by the distinctive appeal of its journalism alone.

There are exceptions, and I like to think this newspaper is one of them. Forgive the intrusion of the personal pronoun in this normally unsolipsistic space; this is the last issue of the Independent on Sunday I shall edit and it is a newspaper I helped to create. It has its share of faults. Its greatest strength is its journalistic culture, the common purpose of the people who write, edit and produce it. The Independent titles have sometimes been accused of sanctimony, and sometimes with some justice, but at their heart lies a serious, liberal idea that badly needs nurturing - that good newspapers have a social as well as a commercial worth. They cannot, of course, be run like charities. They need to pay their way. But intelligent journalism needs some other lode star than the purely commercial proposition, even though it must work within the parameters of commerce. I know that everyone I have worked with here shares that view, and that this mutual belief has sustained this newspaper through some difficult times. I know, especially, that it is shared by Peter Wilby, my successor. Under his editorship the paper will be in very good hands.

I SHALL miss a great many things. An editor's relationship with his readers remains one of the central mysteries of journalism - how well can we know each other? do we know each other at all? - but to judge from the letters I have received over the past four years the readers of this newspaper are both demanding in their standards of fairness and exactness, and generous in their praise. Your loyalty has been a great reward. Second, I shall miss my colleagues. Some newspapers are run like autocracies. This, thanks to its staff's enthusiasm and excellence, has never needed to be one of them.

Lastly, I shall miss the view from our office on the 18th floor of this grand and peculiar building, stuck in the middle of what used to be the West India Docks. The outlook stretches down the Thames towards the sea. Occasionally tugs and barges move up and down the river and small freighters carrying sand, cement and scrap metal tie up at the wharfs in Greenwich and Canning Town. Big ships are rare. The last ones regularly to sail up the Thames come once or twice a week to unload their cargo at Deptford. It is newsprint bound for the newspaper factories that now lie on either side of the Thames. As these ships sail upstream past my window, I catch myself wondering how many rolls in the hold will end up in the cause of the dispersal of reliable, interesting and important information, and how much in the cause of junk. It would not do, however, to think about this for too long.

Ian Jack