IoS 1000th issue: 1995-1996, Peter Wilby

The North Pole was melting, civil servants were being paid too much and the Prime Minister couldn't put a foot right. Sound familiar?

Friday 13 September 2013 03:28

When I look back through the archives to a period when nobody had heard of a derivative, New Labour had just been invented and the internet was barely a rumour, the surprise is that so many of the themes are familiar. The Government was in deep trouble and there was talk of leadership challenges to the prime minister: "Poor Mr Major, he just can't get anything right," was the headline on Alan Watkins' column. MPs were mired in sleaze. We forecast a global stock-market collapse, fretted about the possibility of identity cards, revealed that 23 "fat cat" civil servants and quango heads earned more than £100,000 a year, and warned that polar ice was melting.

Other stories became bigger in the years after I left the editor's chair. Patrick Hosking, then our business editor, warned of dire consequences from the growing movement to demutualise the building societies and suggested we shouldn't trust City institutions with our savings ("Who's minding your money?" was the headline.) We disclosed that British Gas would get a multi-million-pound bonanza from plans for a millennium jamboree on a site it owned in Greenwich, south London.

And there was the one that got away. The news desk offered an exclusive about the "millennium bug" – the theory that all the world's computers would go haywire, causing banks to seize up and planes to fall to earth, because their time-code programs couldn't cope with a change from 999 to 000. I rejected it as an obviously ridiculous scare story. I had to wait four years, during which the bug became the talk of the age, to be proved right.

Then, as now, the IoS had a small team, glittering with talent: Neal Ascherson, Allison Pearson, Blake Morrison, Geraldine Bedell, Geoffrey Lean, Nick Cohen, Charles Nevin and Paul Routledge were among our writers when I took over. I recruited Decca Aitkenhead and Andy Beckett, later award-winning journalists, then at the very beginning of their careers. When Thomas Hamilton massacred 16 small children and their teacher in Dunblane, Cohen was the only reporter available. His Sunday piece, we agreed, far surpassed those written by teams of seven or eight sent by our rivals.

Aitkenhead later gave a front-row account when Julie Burchill began a much-publicised affair with another woman. (The woman happened to be her flatmate.) And Catherine Pepinster, now editor of the Catholic paper The Tablet, revealed to the world the late Harold Pinter's affair with Joan Bakewell.

The mid-1990s were a strange, unsettling time for newspapers, as they struggled to cope with the growth of 24-hour news outlets. Managements changed editors as often as their shirts. After 17 months, I was fired by David Montgomery, chief executive of the Mirror Group, then the joint owners. He wanted, he said, someone metropolitan, sophisticated and fashionable. Since I was none of those things, I replied, he was right to look elsewhere. Bizarrely, I was by then the fourth-longest-serving editor of a national newspaper.

Click on the image above to see Peter Wilby's selection

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments