Brief History of The Independent
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on the launch of The Independent and the pioneering path it has forged for
over a quarter of a century.
EVER since it was launched in 1986, The Independent has
enjoyed a reputation for quality and innovation, something Andreas
Whittam-Smith and his two co-founders, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds, made
as a guiding principle when they conceived the idea of a new, upmarket British
Partly, their determination to be creative and to maintain the
highest of standards was borne out of necessity. The market for newspapers was
very crowded and The Independent was trying to elbow aside The Times,
Guardian, and Daily Telegraph, and possibly the Financial
Times as well.
From the off, that desire expressed itself in a clean, fresh
design for a broadsheet. Black and white photography was to be celebrated, not
crowded out with newsprint, so there was plenty of white space. Stories were
longer than elsewhere with due heed given to original, vivid writing. The paper
respected the intelligence of its readers – it did not preach and did not
patronise. In tone, it was authoritative and knowing, but also, where power and
influence were concerned, questioning and probing. It covered the waterfront of
news, same as its rivals, but in some areas it was stronger than others. "The
Indy", as it soon became known, made politics, business, foreign news, comment
and the arts, especially books, its own.
In Whittam-Smith, too, it had a leader who was not easily
bracketed. A former City editor of The Daily Telegraph, in many ways a
grandee, but a maverick with a non-conformist streak, Andreas could be
pronouncing on a major takeover one minute, and then decrying a lack of social
justice the next.
Partly, then, the paper was the embodiment of its chief: a true
independent character. And that individualism spilled over into innovation. In
its early years, The Indy was commented upon and marvelled at as a product of
great beauty. Even if someone did not agree with its avowedly liberal heart,
they could not deny its ground-breaking aesthetic.
It wasn’t just in looks, however, that The Independent
sought to put clear space between itself and the opposition. Early on, the
paper took a decision to remain outside the Parliamentary lobby system. The
Indy would source its statements, and that included from the Prime Minister’s
spokesman. If Downing Street was not prepared to let that happen, then so be it
– The Independent was not going to deceive its readers by being
spoon-fed and not saying so.
Other aspects of journalism that were regarded as acceptable on
other titles would not pass muster at the Indy. So the paper paid for its
travel features, rather than take “freebies” from holiday operators. Likewise,
it paid its own way in restaurants so there was no doubt its reviews were
untainted. For a long time too, The Indy resisted allowing its journalists to
go on press trips, taking the view that nothing was to be gained from going in
a pack and being subjected to PR “spin”. A far better use of the reporter’s
time, reasoned The Indy chiefs, was for him or her to be pursuing their own
The Indy succeeded, too, in attracting like-minded spirits. Its
birth coincided, not accidentally, with growing unrest at the hold over British
life of Rupert Murdoch. He owned The Times, and that meant in some
quarters Britain’s oldest quality newspaper could no longer claim to be
independent in thought and deed. Whittam-Smith thought he saw a gap in the
market vacated by The Times and went for it. His move was soon
vindicated when the Murdoch titles became embroiled in the Wapping dispute
after their owner attempted to break the print unions by spiriting their
production away to East London. Many Times “refuseniks” simply left and
joined The Independent, rather than cross picket lines. This influx of
talent not only gave the new paper a head-start but contributed to its
rebellious, won’t-be-cowed, character.
Murdoch, as is his wont, hit back. In March 1992, during the
general election of that year, The Indy circulation reached 440,000,
overhauling The Times. Murdoch’s response was to cut the price of The
What was The Independent’s response? Only to raise its own
cover price. In true Indy fashion, the counter-intuitive move was designed to
show that its readers would not be governed by price, and that price wars were
for other, lesser titles. It also emphasised the value of independent
journalism, and that the paper stood firmly for quality, not a cut-price,
reduced offering. In the end, Murdoch’s pressure told. The paper was never able
to recapture the heights immediately prior to Murdoch’s price cut. But those
competitive forces have not prevented The Independent from remaining
true to its origins. It has still consistently led the field in terms of trying
When The Independent on Sunday was born, it introduced to
the Sunday market an object of rare beauty – the “Sunday Review”. Until then,
there had been Sunday supplements, but this was completely different. It was
produced on large-sized paper, its writing was of an exceptionally high
standard, and throughout there were the most sumptuous photographs. It combined
everything – lifestyle, food and drink, the arts, book reviews – in one,
Through the years, other innovations followed. When research
showed that readers were looking for a smaller formatted daily paper, one that
would fit easily in a briefcase or bag, and could be read comfortably on the
train, The Independent took the plunge and went “compact”.
But the introduction of the smaller format was also done in a
uniquely, Indy way. Instead of canning the broadsheet shape in favour of the
tabloid, for a period they were produced together, side by side. Readers could
therefore make the transition gradually, and get used to the new size, and
satisfy themselves that it still contained all their favourite sections and
writers, before the plug was pulled, finally, on the broadsheet.
In order to keep pace with today’s fast-changing market for news
and content, The Independent has undergone several redesigns. One major
change came when it was decided to reflect the growing importance of comment
and opinion, by creating a “Viewspaper”. It was a separate section devoted
entirely to columns and commentary, to accompany the main newspaper.
Throughout, The Indy has never wavered from its belief in great
writing. That passion, possibly an obsession, remains at the heart of
everything it does. Today, famous names like Patrick Cockburn and Rupert
Cornwell grace its pages. If you want to know what is happening in the Middle
East, to be able to put events there in context, then you cannot ignore Robert
Fisk. Likewise, in business, Hamish McRae is the sage who specialises in being
ahead of the markets, constantly proved right in his predictions and forecasts.
In football, nothing moves without Sam Wallace or Ian Herbert knowing about it.
The list of star names is long. Even more extensive is the
roll-call of those who have graced the paper’s pages since inception. Sebastian
Faulks, Andrew Marr, Peter Jenkins, Miles Kington, Zoe Heller, Helen Fielding,
James Lawton, Simon Calder, James Fenton… the famous by-lines go on and on.
Fortunately, they are easily accessed and their peerless words
safely preserved. All articles from The Independent’s relatively short
but glorious history have been archived and are available online. It’s another
new twist from the title that does not know how to stand still. Be our guests; enjoy
some of the best, most powerful, most informative writing over the past nearly
three decades. Happy reading.
Blackhurst was Deputy Editor of The Independent on Sunday from 1996 to 1998 and
Editor of The Independent from 2011 to 2013.
He now serves as Group Content Editor across The Independent, The
Independent on Sunday, the i and the London Evening Standard.