The Indy finds its voice

It is not unusual for the relaunch of a newspaper to be greeted less than warmly by the media sections of its rivals, but for it to be lacerated before it has actually appeared on the streets is beastly even in the cut-throat environment of the national press. Simon Kelner was probably still tinkering with his refurbishment of The Independent when my former colleague, Roy Greenslade, writing in Media Guardian four days before the relaunch was unveiled, slipped in the stiletto.

"I have come to believe…that neither The Independent or The Independent on Sunday can be revived," wrote Greenslade. "Nor am I convinced that the revamp, however sensible the structural changes and ingenious the philosophical diversion, will breathe any life into them."

How this must have cheered Kelner as he completed the final relaunch adjustments, dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s in an effort to be even more different from The Grauniad, which, of course, has a famed propensity to dot its ‘t’s and cross its ‘i’s. Kelner had briefed Greenslade on the changes to come and been prematurely chastised for them. It would be understandable were he to have been hoping that things could only get better.

Fat chance. Kim Fletcher, among the fairest and most readable of media columnists, devoted his Daily Telegraph column to damning The Indy’s "new clothes" with praise so faint that it was almost invisible. And Peter Preston delivered a double whammy, mustering scant enthusiasm for the Indy’s restructuring in both The Observer and The Guardian.

Strangely, neither Fletcher nor Preston paid much attention to the main plank of The Independent’s new initiative: a pro-Europe stance that includes enthusiastic support for membership of the single currency. Greenslade also dallied only briefly on the adoption of a go-for-broke philosophy no other paper has dared fully to embrace, despite informing his readers that "it has long been my belief that the central problem at the heart of The Independent’s demise has been its lack of a raison d’être".

It has long been the belief of many others, too, and they include Kelner. When, in another publication, I commented that the paper that was once an opinion-former had become no more than an opinion-presenter – "It has no real voice of its own," I wrote – Kelner responded by buying me lunch and confessing that his paper was very much a knight in search of a cause. Any suggestions as to what The Indy could tilt its lance at would be welcomed – although windmills were definitely out.

It has taken a year or so for Kelner to come up with a unique selling point that, contrary to Greenslade, I believe could signal a deserved reversal in the fortunes of The Independent and its Sunday sister. As the paper’s introductory piece to its new look and direction pointed out, Britain is becoming more closely entwined with mainland Europe by the day, culturally and commercially.

The need for us to be at the forefront of the development of Europe in all areas, from football to politics, is irrefutable. That the vocal majority is still resistant to further integration and, especially, the joining of the single currency, is hardly a reason for The Indy to fight shy of promoting both. After all, when you are selling only around 226,000 copies a day, and not all of those at the full cover price, even a minor slice of the largely silent pro-Europe minority could be enough to guarantee survival.

And despite a lack of resources that’s sometimes as plain as the nose on Cyrano de Bergerac’s face, The Independent is a paper with much else to offer. David Aaron-ovitch alone is required reading (although adding a media column to his duties may be spreading even his prodigious talents a little too thin. Whatever his initial columns in this section were, they most certainly did not live up to the "provocative" promotional label).

The new tabloid section, although a little garish for my taste, is packed with largely excellent content. And I am a great admirer of John Walsh, an off-beat columnist with the lightest of touches and, as a rival editor admiringly conceded to me last week, one of a dwindling band who could probably produce a beautifully crafted piece about a fly walking up a window pane.

Indeed, so much do I enjoy Walsh’s work that I am desperate to know how his delightful dispatch from Reykjavik, "the trendiest place in Europe", concluded. In my edition of that day’s paper his final words were: "The nearest landmass south of there is mainland Scotland. I’ve". For a moment I thought I was reading The Guardian.

 

Lewis versus Tyson it isn’t. No punches were thrown at their last meeting in public and to my knowledge neither protagonist is yet guilty of having bitten off a chunk of an opponent’s ear. But, as I first observed as long ago as last July, the unedifying spat between Mirror editor Piers Morgan and his opposite number at The Sun, David Yelland, dissipates energies that are desperately required in other areas.

The Mirror, despite great journalistic achievement and two Newspaper of the Year awards, sold more than 22,600 fewer copies each day in March compared with the previous month. Strip out the bulk sales, which MGN Ltd is to do as a matter of course in future, and the title is clinging above the magic two million mark only by Piers’s fingertips.

Meanwhile, The Sun is more than 66,000 down. Both titles have slipped considerably year-on-year, The Sun even more so than The Mirror. The Trinity Mirror flagship’s change of direction this week – goodbye red masthead, hello again Daily Mirror – will demand the total engagement of Morgan’s talents and inspired response from Yelland if the downward trend is to be halted.

When I read that Morgan had responded to Yelland’s congratulations at last month’s British Press Awards with abuse and profanity – "F*** off, you bald c***" – I asked the Mirror editor to confirm the incident. He replied that before getting to the asterisk stage, he had twice "politely" told his rival that he did not wish to talk to him.

Yelland had been reported in GQ magazine as having said he possessed "explosive" e-mails that could destroy Morgan, "but I won’t leak them because they could destroy his kids". This incited Morgan, Piers claims, to tell Yelland: "Why don’t you trot off and destroy my kids like you keep threatening to, you ****."

Yelland would explain his point of view to me only off the record, but it is fair to say that he reiterates that he would never have made public the contents of the e-mails [between then Sun staffer Marina Hyde and Morgan].

This dispute between two intelligent men at the top of their profession, and the way it has been conducted, is as sad as it is reprehensible. I shall be happy to act as mediator if both parties will agree to meet, although not necessarily kiss, and make up.                            

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