35 years of the independent

The Independent’s mission has never been more vital

Since our founding in 1986, we’ve gone from an audience of hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions, reading, watching and listening to our work. Now, with journalists spanning the globe, holding power to account, we’re more committed than ever to making change happen

Friday 15 October 2021 13:13
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<p>A protester on a rally for a second EU referendum in October 2019 </p>

A protester on a rally for a second EU referendum in October 2019

The Independent has had its share of plaudits and praise, and endured criticism too – some constructive, some more what they call in legal circles “vulgar abuse”. Probably the greatest compliment paid to us was unintended, and came from the ever-fluent Tony Blair. Back in June 2007, as he was nearing the end of his premiership, the then prime minister evidently thought he might as well level a parting shot at the media on the way out. In a speech, he picked The Independent for especial attention as an example of a journalistic “feral beast”.

This rather surprised us, as we’d always thought ourselves a civilised sort of family. A brief newsroom campaign to get T-shirts made up saying “FERAL BEAST” fizzled out. Maybe just as well. Warming to his theme, Mr Blair declared: “The Independent is absolutely entitled to print what it wants, on the Middle East or anything else. But it was started as an antidote to the idea of journalism as views, not news. That was why it was called The Independent. Today it is avowedly a viewspaper, not merely a newspaper. The final consequence of this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media.”

It was flattering, in a way, to be attacked by Mr Blair, and gratifying that he had got things so wrong. Our stance on Iraq – opposition to war from the start – was unusual in Fleet Street, and it had obviously rankled him as events transpired to vindicate The Independent’s stand. Perhaps he was especially annoyed by the “impact” front page on the flawed Hutton report into the war, mostly blank with the simple headline in blood red: “WHITEWASH?” The only thing wrong with that was the question mark.

Not for the first time, or the last, Mr Blair misunderstood the job of the journalist. The Independent was established not as an antidote to the idea of journalism as views, but rather as a necessary corrective to proprietorial influence and narrow political allegiance. The clue is in the famous advertising slogan coined for The Independent’s launch in 1986 – “It is. Are you?” It still is, by the way.

Osama bin Laden, photographed during an interview with Robert Fisk in 1993

The Independent has of course evolved, but we remain proud of the standard of our journalism and the bravery of our correspondents. This has especially been the case in our coverage of world events. It was courageous, as well as smart story-getting, for Robert Fisk to track Osama bin Laden back in the 1990s, and to try and warn the world about this bizarre and dangerous fanatic. Robert, who died almost a year ago, leaves behind a formidable legacy of work. It was brave, too, and prescient, for Patrick Cockburn to identify the emergence of Islamic State/Isis, which he did before any other media outlet had noticed its deadly potential.

Bel Trew, in Beirut, was able to report movingly about the manmade disasters that have once again destroyed the beautiful city she calls home. The explosion that ripped through the Lebanese capital last year killed hundreds, injured thousands, and caused billions of pounds’ worth of damage. Here, she recounts what happened: “Haloed by the lights from their mobile phones, the medical staff at St George University Hospital picked through the dead to carry injured patients and colleagues on bed sheets through the ravaged remains of the nine-storey building.

“Outside, a tidal wave of wounded coming out of the building crashed into the wave of wounded coming in from the surrounding neighbourhoods. In the middle, dazed medics, still stained with blood, set up a makeshift triage centre in the car park to treat both.”

A scene of destruction after the Beirut explosion in August 2020

Most recently, Kim Sengupta stayed in Kabul after the retreat of western forces, the better to tell the story of that contemptible betrayal of the Afghan people, just as he was first to the execution of Colonel Gaddafi and much else in decades with The Independent.

This is how he described the desperate plight of those trying to flee Afghanistan at Kabul airport after the Taliban seized control. It’s quoted at length as an exemplar of the style and quality of Independent journalism over the years:

“The woman looked around with an anguished cry, frightened, seeking familiar faces as she stumbled out of the crowd. She tried to speak but no words would come out: then she fell to the ground, her hand raised in supplication.

“The hopes this mother of three young children had of escaping a grim and uncertain future in Afghanistan, and starting a new life abroad with her family, had ended on a dusty road full of rubble in front of strangers, most of whom were so busy with their own troubles that they did not even notice what had happened.

“Among those who did were the British soldiers from the Parachute Regiment. They ran and dragged her clear to give first aid. They put her on a stretcher and put a sun-screening sheet over her body. But it was too late: the sheet was soon pulled up over her face to become a shroud.

A militia fighter in Afghanistan this summer as the Taliban swept across the country

“‘My wife, my wife, what has happened to her?’ cried a man rushing forward. He tore at the sleeves of his brown salwar-kameez in his grief. The soldiers held him back and made him sit down, two of them knelt with their arms around him.

“‘Why did she die? Why not hospital? Why is this happening to us? What is going to happen to our children?’ the man asked through his tears. ‘I am sorry, we did the best we could, we really did,’ said one of the soldiers. The other said, ‘My heart breaks for you, mate.’

“This was another death in the chaos outside Kabul airport as thousands try to flee on evacuation flights organised by the US, UK and other foreign governments for those who are believed to be in danger from the Taliban.”

The Independent celebrates 35 years of truly independent journalism

Journalists on The Independent have always, to borrow a phrase, tried to entertain, inform and even, respectfully, educate our readers. Today, to offer a few examples, it is what Tom Peck does in his political sketches and columns, as shown when he had the excruciating task of trying to satirise Theresa May’s disastrous conference speech in 2017: “It was a nightmare so richly layered it was almost as if it had been directed by Christopher Nolan. Time passed, seconds warped into hours, and as Theresa May moved deeper and deeper down through the levels of her own never-ending anxiety dream it became impossible to see how she might ever find her way out.”

Simon Calder, “the man who pays his way”, is the best in the business, still building an impressive army of intrepid followers, and Miguel Delaney and Melissa Reddy bring to the world of sport the same kind of thoughtfulness and forthright commentary that the late Jim Lawton did for The Independent for many years. It can be witnessed in this column by Melissa on “taking the knee”: “That these men, with 15 of the squad aged 25 or under, will not be booed out of their beliefs ahead of a career milestone offers hope that the future can be less ugly than the present and the past. It would be the easy option for them to press eject, wear a ‘no room for racism’ shirt and simply stick to football when focus is paramount.

Our correspondent Melissa Reddy interviews Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson

“Who wants to be booed by their own ahead of doing an intensely pressured job on a major scale that is broadcast to millions around the globe? None of them need this, least of all the black and mixed-race players that are tired from wearing this heavy battle since birth. The constant fighting, the educating they’re told to do, and the sea of ignorance they are met with while also being routinely dehumanised.”

We’ve also never been scared to stand up for what we believe in, or to put the force of our journalism behind a cause we believe is worth fighting for. In 2018, as Brexit emerged as something very different from the promises of the Vote Leave campaign, we backed a campaign for a second referendum to give the public the chance to have the Final Say. That push gained huge support, with more than a million backing our petition, huge marches taking over swathes of central London, and major political parties putting a referendum into their Brexit policies. Though that was a battle that was ultimately lost, the various crises attributed to our EU exit over the past 12 months show why we stand by our call, at the time, to give voters the Final Say.

The Independent has also helped drive change for mothers and babies at risk on maternity wards. While uncovering a series of safety scandals, we pushed the government to put money towards more stringent training for doctors and nurses. That pressure, over almost 18 months of reporting, led to a victory in March this year, with the promise of almost £100m to make hospitals safer for mothers and their children.

Our Final Say campaign brought more than a million onto the streets of London

The spirit of innovation that saw The Independent break the newspaper industry’s cosy status quo in 1986 has had to be renewed time and again. The Independent was the first broadsheet to adopt a compact layout, the first to produce a cut-down news digest in the form of the i newspaper, and the first to embrace a fully digital future.

The pivot to online and the accompanying investment has allowed us to project our founding values globally in a way that was inconceivable 35 years ago. From an audience counted in tens of thousands when the newspaper closed, The Independent’s readership now numbers tens of millions. The rise and fall of Donald Trump has brought us American readers who see us as a trusted, authoritative source at a time when “mainstream media” is being derided by demagogues and populist bullies. The Independent’s US team has expanded too, with bureaus on both east and west coasts, as well as in Washington DC, at the heart of political power. Our reporters were there as the Trump administration fell apart, with Rudy Giuliani giving his press conference outside a Philadelphia landscaping firm, and among the rioters who stormed the US Capitol in January. Our journalism was even cited in Trump’s impeachment trial.

In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, more readers than ever turned to our website for the facts on an emerging crisis without scaremongering or alarmism, valuing a news source that places veracity above clicks. We’ve shone a light on the pressures on the NHS and its patients, bringing the full story from inside hospitals, as well as concerns over mass testing, the implementation of lockdowns, and how government policy has hit the most vulnerable.

The Independent was the first major UK title to embrace a fully digital future

Across the board, we’ve grown while others have consolidated, determined to bring more breadth and expertise to our reporting, employing more journalists with each year as we’ve taken on the digital challenge and thrived. With a large team in Delhi adding to our offices in London, New York and Los Angeles – and planned expansion in Taiwan and Australia – Independent journalism will soon span every time zone.

Our trusted journalism, which was once only available from newsagents, now comes to millions through our online articles, podcasts and newsletters, along with our Daily Edition and Premium apps, all informed by the same principles and ideals we adopted on day one. Independent TV, a new home for our high-quality video, has gained hundreds of millions of viewers since its launch last December.

We’ve reported and commented on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the atrocities of 9/11, on the rise and fall of Thatcherism, of Blair’s New Labour, and of Brexit. Unlike some, we’re still going, and our reputation goes before us.

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