Now it is commonplace to give separate pages or sections to health issues, to education and to science; now the arts get sustained coverage; now the broadsheet newspapers provide listings services; now care is taken with obituaries, now photographs are given plenty of space and now comment, marked as such, can appear on front pages when great issues are at stake. All these were Independent innovations which have since been copied so that today readers of broadsheet newspapers would be surprised if these things weren't done.
What has not been borrowed, indeed cannot be, are certain attitudes. The most important aspect of this newspaper is its title. For me independence means no commitment to any causes other than the paper's own. It is a refusal to place the newspaper on the left or right of the political spectrum. The broad themes it espouses, such as a desire for constitutional reform, welcome for a European dimension in our life, concern for the widening gap between rich and poor and a faith in competition as the most effective way of securing efficiency in state provision and wealth in the private sector do not coincide with a particular party line. On almost all the above tests, for instance, a Blair government would be too timid.
Independence is in a newspaper's internal arrangements also. Do the shareholders influence its coverage? The Independent has been fortunate here. In its early years its owners were pension funds, investment trusts and life assurance companies which focused on financial performance rather than on opinions. Now The Independent's shareholders are themselves newspaper groups. They may properly comment on the skills with which the newspaper carries out its editorial tasks but they never interfere in the direction or extent of its coverage of particular subjects.
Do the advertisers have a say? This is not a problem for national newspapers as it is for magazines; newspapers have so many individual advertisers that no single one has leverage. British Airways once removed its business from The Independent for some months because of our criticisms of the directors during the "dirty tricks" row with Richard Branson. But that can be endured.
Independence is the core value, but I would add two injunctions: trust the writers and respect the readers. By trusting the writers I mean that the editor should accept what the reporter finds and not have a strong view about everything. The account should speak for itself. It is wrong when newspapers are edited to convey a consistent message or to confirm a particular picture of society and the word comes down to the reporter that the editor wants a particular spin. When Mrs Thatcher was in 10 Downing Street, conservative newspapers began to see everything through Mrs Thatcher's eyes, confirming her enthusiasms and her prejudices with every story.
Writers have their own independence, though even that can be undermined. We journalists can be corrupted, not by money but by more insidious attractions. Flattery has a potent influence on us. The specialist journalist naturally gets to know the people about whom he or she is regularly writing. A professional relationship may turn into a friendship, genuine or feigned. At that point, the writer is beginning to lose the ability to cover the subject even-handedly. One of the most important tasks of editors is to watch out for the danger signs.
The second injunction, respect the readers, is more important than ever. One example is provided by those rare occasions when newspapers provide a verbatim report of a speech or interview. For once, they resist the temptation to angle the account. It is not a technique to use too often but when the Princess of Wales gave her celebrated Panorama interview, the best report would have been the full text. More important, the way in which all broadsheet newspapers - including The Independent, when I had the responsibility - have felt it necessary in recent years to move downmarket and become more "popular" has had advantages but may also have this risk, that the readers begin to be treated according to the ways advertisers categorise them rather than as they really are. Such lack of respect damages the trust between readers and their newspapers. Without that, we have no future.
The author was editor of 'The Independent' from 1986 to 1994.Reuse content