Diary

Blake Morrison

There is nothing like the threatened demise of a newspaper to bring out a journalist’s sentimentality. The disclosure, some weeks ago, that the 201-year-old Observer was to be sold, and might disappear, was the occasion for some stirring comment about the paper, both from people who properly respect its liberal traditions and from people who have spent years talking it down. In the event the Observer was bought not by Newspaper Publishing plc, which intended to merge the title with the Independent on Sunday, but by the Guardian, which will keep it going.

Even some of us at the Independent on Sunday, the ‘losers’, were able to share the widespread relief. We could see the commercial sense in the Newspaper Publishing bid; we told ourselves that a strong left-liberal ‘merged’ paper would offer some opposition to the Sunday Times, rather as a Lib-Lab pact might to the Tories; we knew that the Observer’s title would be kept, and were assured that thirty or forty of its journalists would be kept, too. But we didn’t like being made to feel acquisitive, predatory, or – since we’re a small paper – rich. Nor did we relish the idea of Lonrho, whose interference had been one of the reasons some of us had left the Observer, having a stake in Newspaper Publishing.

Besides, wouldn’t a merged title have been an admission that we, and not just the Observer, had failed? Those of us who joined the paper for its launch in early 1990 did so for a variety of reasons: because the marvellous dummy for the Independent on Sunday’s Review section was like nothing we’d ever seen before; because we envied those people who’d made a go of launching the daily paper three years before; because we wanted a better employer than Murdoch or Maxwell or Tiny Rowland. But there was one thing that united us: a conviction that it was time for a fourth (or, since the Sunday Correspondent was then still operating) even fifth quality Sunday paper. It wasn’t always easy to sustain that belief. I can remember sitting one gloomy afternoon in the makeshift office looking out at the starlings flocking over Blake’s grave in Bunhill Fields, and wondering what had possessed me to move. The last books pages I’d worked on at the Observer lay beside me (Ian Hamilton and Ted Hughes on the life of Sylvia Plath, Alison Lurie’s obituary of Mary McCarthy, Salman Rushdie on Graham Greene, Claire Tomalin on Coleridge, Anthony Burgess on Fielding, other reviews by Anita Brookner, Peter Conrad, Roy Foster and Hilary Mantel), and as the limits on the new paper’s resources became apparent I thought how hard it would be to put together pages of comparable stature. There was one solace: the Independent on Sunday would be run by clear-eyed, yet idealistic journalists; there wouldn’t be a proprietor pulling the strings.

I might have been less naive if Nicholas Garland’s story of the muddle-and-fudge launch of the daily Independent, in his book Not Many Dead, had then been available. I might have thought differently, too, if I’d known that the inspiration for that innovatory Review dummy had been Motorcycle News; and, more seriously, that the 1986 launch of the daily Independent had been not a moral crusade but a calculated move to exploit a ‘market gap’. Or so I learn from Stephen Glover, originally foreign editor of the daily and later editor of the Independent on Sunday, whose book Paper Dreams[*] is a cross between a company report and W.E. Johns, a venture-capital story for boys: three fellows have a terrific wheeze which earns them lots of dough, but then have another which leads to such trouble that two won’t let the other play any more. Glover is the boy who was left out in the cold, which may be felt to colour his version of events. If he’d chosen to reveal in 1989 what he chooses to reveal now about himself and his co-founders Matthew Symonds and Andreas Whittam-Smith he might have found recruits hard to come by.

Comparing his book with my own memory of events is an odd experience: the office furniture is the same, even the faces are, so why does everything look different? Of the trio who set up the Sunday paper, Ian Jack and Sebastian Faulks were the ones who brought me there and who I’d known before. But I liked Stephen, who had a languid, donnish, even parsonical air, and whose voice reminded me for some reason of the first person ever to give me a job, John Gross. One of Stephen’s favourite words was ‘collegiate’, and this seemed to be his model for the paper: it would be run by a few chaps who liked tossing around ideas with other chaps, and would be read by chaps in JCRs rather than JCBs. Over breakfast at a lavish suite in the Churchill Hotel we discussed the fine and noble thing the paper might be: as fearlessly investigative as Harry Evans’s Sunday Times, as intellectually stimulating as David Astor’s Observer, as full of human interest as the Daily Telegraph. It wasn’t clear who would do the dirty work of actually getting the paper out, but surely it couldn’t fail.

The Independent’s offices were, and are, in the City, and I was struck by how grown-up and respectable the comparatively young staff seemed, and how wise about money: Stephen, lugubrious in dark suits and braces which made him look much older than 37, set the tone. At the more bohemian and casually dressed Observer we’d taken it a matter of journalistic integrity never to worry about budgets, knowing that Tiny would write off all losses. At the Independent we were made to care by the simple expedient of holding ‘responsibility’ rather than ‘budget’ meetings.

I rather enjoyed the novelty of this, feeling a bit like Larkin said he did when Mrs Thatcher came along (‘Recognising that if you haven’t got the money for something you can’t have it’). But when Stephen addressed his new staff for the first time on 4 December 1989, seven weeks before launch day, and began by saying that the point of setting up the Sunday paper was first and foremost ‘to make money’, the novelty began to wear off. He didn’t specify who the money would be made for, and perhaps there were hidden layers of irony, but as a battle-cry for the new troops it could have hardly been more misjudged. I began to wonder if Stephen was an editor who could get the best out of his staff.

Occasionally, beneath the frothy euphoria of the launch, those doubts would creep back, not least when Stephen, in another address to his new and enthusiastic staff, complained that there were ‘pockets of lassitude’ about the floor. There was anxiety that the new ‘product’ should have ‘properties’ to help it along, and for our second issue we had Salman Rushdie’s seven thousand-word essay ‘In Good Faith’, his first public statement since the fatwa 12 months before. The essay, along with an accompanying front-page interview, was certain to be newsworthy, but to me it was important for other reasons: in defining our identity as a paper willing to publish lengthy, challenging pieces of writing, and as one which stood up for intellectual freedom. Stephen, in whose book the essay merits only a parenthetical reference (he calls it ‘expensive’), was more ambivalent. He admired the piece, and boldly gave it room, and was touchingly concerned for my safety (I was given a security guard for a week, who accompanied me even on a Sunday family outing to Wisley). But he also insisted on publishing a front-page editorial pleading for a conciliatory gesture from Rushdie and distancing us from his defence of The Satanic Verses. You could call this admirable even-handedness, but you could also call it hedging your bets. It was difficult to know what exactly Stephen cared about or believed in, other than the desire to edit a paper and to fly free of the nets of Andreas Whittam-Smith. He writes drily in his book of colleagues weeping, but more tears and passion from him would have done the paper no harm. Even his very last editorial, which suggested that ‘a nation tired of Tories ... will, and should, vote for Labour at the next election,’ was more a piece of insider mischief than an address to readers: his real interest was in defying his erstwhile mentor’s principle of political neutrality.

The redeeming side of Stephen Glover’s editing style was his willingness to listen and debate: he didn’t bully or swagger; nor was he a recluse. So, too, one virtue of his book is its willingness to record others’ criticisms. He can be malicious about those who he feels betrayed him, but in general his memory of office exchanges seems to be accurate, and, had he chosen to, he could certainly have dealt more unkindly with some of us who flit across his pages in minor parts. All the same, his version of events has one huge lacuna: nearly two years on, he cannot see that his fall was due less to a power struggle which he lost than to his failure to give the paper a strong identity. What he recalls as the ‘halcyon days’ of the paper’s second six months I remember as a decline. With Ian Jack having departed to write a book, the paper struck a new note of hauteur and froideur and even, on the first Sunday of the Gulf War, of a Boy’s Own jingoism. It had begun wanting to win over Observer readers, and now looked like a poor shadow of the Telegraph.

Many of Stephen Glover’s staff tried to make these points to him before it was too late. We told him, for example, that the paper was seriously short of women writers and editors. Stephen would nod, and seem to take the point, and then do nothing: he evidently decided that these were mere ideological arguments, not commercial ones; his inner circle remained clubbishly male. Meanwhile, circulation was falling, we were in a recession and what had been thought to be careful costings turned out to be Eighties back-of-an-envelope whims, people outside the company were muttering that the paper was dry and boring, and people inside – including Independent journalists who had always opposed the Sunday and were now resentful that it was reducing the value of their shares – were talking of closure. Increasingly, we discovered, loyalty to the paper and loyalty to its editor meant different things. We sympathised when Stephen told us that he was being treated shoddily. But even those who most energetically supported him and tried to find an outside buyer would admit in private that if they succeeded Stephen would not remain editor.

Under its present editor, the Independent on Sunday is a better paper than it used to be, much closer to the one I thought I was joining three and a half years ago; with a left-liberal identity which marks us off strongly from the daily Independent. As one of those who chose to stay, I can be expected to say this, but an increased readership suggests that others think so, too. The paper needs investment if it is to stick up for itself in a more competitive market – which is one of several reasons why an increased stake for El Pais and La Reppublica, though a further breach of the principles of the founding fathers, has its attractions.

[*] Cape, 328 pp., £17.99, 20 May, 0 224 03530 4.