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For better, for worse: 'Why I have worked for The Independent for 25 years'

Only seven of the journalists involved in the paper's launch have remained employed by it ever since. John Lichfield is one of them...

John Lichfield
Friday 07 October 2011 00:00 BST

They left. We didn't. Of the original journalistic staff of The Independent, only a half-dozen of us remain. Ambition, opportunity, promotion, career change, maternity, redundancy, retirement, sickness and death have carried off the rest.

That is normal. It is rare for a journalist to stay with one newspaper for many years. The profession is restless and curious by nature. I am, therefore, unusual. It is for me to explain why I became a "lifer" at The Independent.

I have worked under five proprietors (or ownership structures) and eight editors in the past 25 years. Since 1986, there have been nine foreign editors, including, briefly, me.

I joined from The Scotsman. The only other 1986 recruit from that newspaper was a promising young man called Andrew Marr. I began as West Europe editor, covering the European Union with David Usborne, who also went on to become an Independent lifer. I became US correspondent, deputy foreign editor, foreign editor and, since 1997, Paris correspondent.

I could be accused, I suppose, of being a journalistic vicar of Bray. ( "And this is what I will maintain/ Until my dying day, sir,/ That whatsoever editor shall reign,/ I'll be allowed to stay, sir.") But the vicar of Bray was a professional conformist: a man who changed his beliefs with every new king or queen. I have adjusted, I hope, to the style of different editors, but I have never felt under pressure to conform. It is to the enormous credit of all those editors and proprietors that I have never been told – not once in 25 years – what I should think or what I should write. I do not wish to suggest that The Independent is the only British newspaper where that could have been possible. There are many excellent, honest journalists on other titles. All the same, much of British journalism – even in the so-called upper market – is written to serve or confirm the world view of the newspaper or its proprietor or the assumed prejudices of its readership.

Not this one. I have never felt that there is an overbearing Independent "angle" or "world view" or "ideology" that I have had to feed or flatter. I have never felt under pressure, spoken or unspoken, to follow a political line or to confirm the prejudice of a typical Independent reader.

It is my impression, from emails and letters and meetings, that there is no "typical Independent reader".

I have occasionally had offers from other newspapers. I did once almost leave in a huff. Charlie Wilson (Independent editor No 3) took the view in 1996 that I was not designed to be a foreign editor but should be a reporter or writer. I knew that he was right but I was still upset and wanted to go. He and Simon Kelner (later Independent editor No 6) persuaded me to stay.

I also quarrelled mildly with my old Scotsman colleague Marr when he was Independent editor No 4. I thought that he was trying to change the newspaper into a daily commentary on the news, a collection of columns and essays. I now realise that he was ahead of his time. It is rarely good to be ahead of your time. At any rate, it was Marr who sent me to Paris. Four other editors have kept me there for nearly 15 years. To work for a British newspaper that takes a wry interest in what is both good and bad in France has been a privilege and a delight. How could anyone leave a job like that?

I have survived many changes of style and format. We have been extremely serious; we have been less serious; we have tried to appeal to the middle market; we have tried to head back upmarket.

I have not always been comfortable with the choices. But I have never felt the honest and independent character of the newspaper has been threatened. Nor have I felt under pressure to bow to some notional "neutrality" or "independence" or absence of political line. I believe this newspaper's title gives me the freedom to reach my own conclusions. It also gives our readers the freedom to reject them. All journalism is selective and therefore opinionated, but there is a difference between honest bias and dishonest bias. An unbiased article contains enough information to allow the reader to disagree with the writer.

In the early days of The Independent, my friend Edward Steen, then East Europe editor, pinned up a Polish cartoon. It showed a pair of hands reaching out from a newspaper to seize a reader by the throat. Despite the many changes over the years, I have always felt proud to work for The Independent.

This has seldom been the kind of newspaper that tried to grip its readers by their throats.

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