An honorable past, imponderable future
Founded in 1986, the paper was an attempt by idealistic journalists to establish a commercially viable independent voice in a British newspaper culture increasingly monopolized by the Rothermere family, owners of the Daily Mail, and Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of the broadsheets, the Times and Sunday Times and of the mass-selling tabloids, the Sun and the News of the World.
Notable for many things, the Independent will be remembered above all for its stand against the Iraq war. Not even the left-liberal Guardian was so unswerving in its principled opposition to British participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. What was more, the paper covered in depth the catastrophic consequences of the war when other newspapers were altogether less inclined to engage with an issue hugely embarrassing to the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In 2007, Blair denounced the Independent for blurring the distinction between fact and opinion. Coming from a politician already widely regarded as a master of duplicity this was an astonishing outburst. What seems even more extraordinary now than it did at the time is that Blair had no particular criticisms to make of Murdoch. For it has since transpired that during the period in question Murdoch’s News of the World was engaged in systematic phone hacking, an episode that would issue in one of the greatest scandals in the history of the British press and cause Murdoch to close the venerable paper down in 2011.
It was not just that Blair owed much to Murdoch’s services as a propagandist. Though they are now for personal reasons estranged, he and the New York-based Australian media baron are in many respects kindred spirits. Sharing a worldview that prioritizes American hegemony, the aggressive prosecution of the “war on terror” and the security of Israel, they also share an intolerance of opinions other than their own.
Long before the Iraq war, Murdoch did what he could to undermine the Independent, whose early success threatened to displace the Times in the broadsheet market. After he slashed the price of the Times, the Independent, which lacked a major backer, led a precarious existence. That the paper was still in existence to protest against the Iraq war owed much to the largesse of the Irish businessman, Tony O’Reilly; more recently, it was kept alive by the Russian billionaire, Eugeny Lebedev, who for the moment, is pledged to sustaining the title in its online manifestation. While he failed to kill it, Murdoch hobbled the Independent as a countervailing force to his own brand of right-wing populist journalism and left it ill-equipped to survive the challenges of a digital era in which fewer people buy newspapers.
On the day the Independent ceased publication in physical form its online edition reported the rebuke that the press watchdog, IPSO, has delivered to Murdoch’s Sun for publishing a “significantly misleading” front-page story that 1 in 5 British Muslims sympathizes with jihadists. The rebuke was also directed at the Times, which repeated story. Though both papers have been obliged to publish a correction, the damage, many will feel, has been done.
The debasing journalistic trends that the Independent set out to challenge are as rampant today as they were when the paper began publication in 1986. What is different is that — for reasons needing no spelling out — the peddling of untruths and bigotry with regard to Muslims and Islam has become unprecedentedly dangerous. It remains to be seen whether the online Independent has a future as a champion of quality journalism with the capacity to influence mainstream debate. It cannot be accused of not trying. This week it was quick to call attention to Tony Blair’s rabble-rousing claim that “many millions of Muslims are fundamentally incompatible with the modern world.”
Well-wishers of the paper are bound to say: “The Independent is dead. Long live the Independent.”
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