Lebedev's Independent: Past, present & future

A few things about the Indy-Lebedev deal:

1) Gavin O’Reilly: a ‘most satisfactory’deal for INM

This phrase, contained in the INM’s statement about the deal, makes O’Reilly sound like a Victorian schoolmaster.

It’s accurate, though. Shutting the Indies would have cost £30m. It would also have generated lots of bad press.

INM has lost a couple of hundred million euros on the Independent since the mid-1990s. It remains remarkable that O’Reillys sustained these losses for so long in the context of running a public company.

On this basis, getting away with a cash payment of £9.25m, rather than a bill for £30m, represents a decent outcome. Even INM’s shareholders seem pleased: the company’s shares rose by 12% yesterday.

2) Is that £9.25m really the end of it for INM?

That’s what INM’s press release suggests. The payment to Lebedev’s company, we’re told, should cover ‘all future trading liabilities and obligations”.

But what about non-trading liabilities? In addition to the £9.25m payment, INM is still (potentially) on the hook for some of these.

INM appears to be acting as a guarantor for the Independent’s print contract with Trinity Mirror, for example.

INM will also guarantee the payments that Lebedev will make on behalf of the Independent to Daily Mail & General Trust for rent and back office services.

Why would a billionaire like Alexander Lebedev need someone to guarantee his ability to make these payments?

Even mighty tycoons, I suppose, are subject to credit checks. Lebedev will own the Independent through a new shell company with no trading history. These arrangements suggest a degree of caution among beancounters about the sources of his funding.

3) Lebedev’s camp is making the right kind of noises

The statement from the Lebedev camp was devoid of any hint about business strategy. But the PR team at Maitland had the sense to report these words from Alexander Lebedev:

“I invest in institutions which contribute to democracy and transparency and, at the heart of that, are newspapers which report independently and campaign for the truth to be revealed. I am a supporter of in-depth investigative reporting and campaigns which promote transparency and seek to fight international corruption.”

Some will be sceptical. But let’s judge the Lebedevs on their actions. The Evening Standard’s recent campaign on poverty in London, for example, contained some riveting coverage. It made good on the Lebedevs’ apology for the Standard’s traditionally one-eyed coverage of the capital.

4) It’s worth looking again at the idea of a digital-only Independent

What might the Independent might become in the future? (I’ve written about this elsewhere.)

Two years ago, Roy Greenslade reported that INM had considered ditching print and turning the paper into an online-only outlet. But the idea was mothballed because — in Greenslade’s words — INM believed it would be “ruinous financially ”.

The same scepticism hangs in the air today. The renegotiated print contract with Trinity Mirror suggests that the Independent will continue in print for some time to come. At Paid Content, Robert Andrews has this to say:

If Lebedev’s London Evening Standard acquisition is anything to go by, then, far from taking the Indy online-only – as has been a common expectation over the last two years – Ledebev is likely to want to reinvigorate the printed edition and leave the web firmly a second-tier medium for now.

Yet since 2008, print-based ad revenues at the Indy and the Sindy have probably halved. This should make the switch to digital easier. If going fully digital isn’t on Lebedev’s radar, it should be.

5) The coverage mentions Rod Liddle as often as the Indy’s founders

These days, Matthew Symonds is industry editor at the Economist. Stephen Glover writes for the Mail and the Independent. Likewise, Andreas Whittam-Smith, now 72, still contributes to the Independent. He also looks after the Church of England’s £5bn investment fund.

Whittam-Smith remains a non-executive director of Independent News & Media Ltd, which owned the Independent on behalf of INM until yesterday.

By the mid-1990s, the trio’s involvement with the Indy was mostly at an end. So their names aren’t mentioned much on the web in connection with the Indy. And if you can’t find it via Google, you ain’t going to find it in today’s coverage (not much, anyway).

But there are other places to turn. One of them is Stephen Glover’s wistful memoir Paper Dreams. Less constrained by propriety, the cartoonist Nicholas Garland wrote his own racy account of the Independent’s early days. He called it Not Many Dead: Journal Of A Year In Fleet Street.

I once mentioned Garland’s book to a member of the Utley family, who reacted as if someone had farted loudly in the reading room of the British Library. To say the least, there was some history involved.

Launching the Independent in 1986 was a heroic undertaking. Garland’s waspish book has several moments of high comedy. It’s out of print, but available here. Read it to get a taste of the vanished world from which the Independent originally sprang.

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