The significance of Ian Hargreaves' dismissal from the editorship of the Independentby John Lloyd / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
There is a familiar litany recited by British intellectuals about the newspapers they feel able to choose between. It usually begins with a lament on The Times; regards the Guardian as “now rather silly”; sees the Telegraph as the preserve of a d?mod? intellectual enclave; and believes that the Independent has “gone off a bit.” The Financial Times is usually the hero of this assessment for its seriousness, its coverage of foreign affairs, its neglect of the cursed topics of sex, monarchy and sport-but it is “a bit specialised” or “hard to read” or “too expensive” (and is rarely read by the litanist anyway).
The answer to this state of affairs has for some time been proposed: a “secular FT”; a paper shorn of the tabular and other market information which is a large part of FT content and, for many, its raison de lire. The most high-falutin’ version of this strategy would be a paper covering domestic and international news with thoughtful objectivity, complemented by a range of analysis and informed comment.
There are models. Le Monde is usually mentioned in this context, and rightly: the paper has improved over the past two years, thanks to a greater separation of news from comment. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is said by German speakers to provide weighty analysis; the Russian dailies Kommersant and Nezavisimaya Gazeta are replete with comment; the New York Times remains the paper preferred by the elites of wealth and intellect.
These papers differ substantially. Those which most frankly address an intellectual demand (or presumed demand) are the poorest and most unstable. Those which are stable have married the intellectuals to business or, in the case of the New York Times, have a monopoly of a market segment. The FT, canniest of them all, retains severity and rationality but regularly slips a glossy “How to spend it” magazine supplement into its weekend edition.
Fact is expensive, but so now is comment-if it is not waffle. Their combined effect can be tremendously refreshing, but that effect is achieved by spending a lot of money-commentators and reporters have to be maintained in close proximity to their subjects, and kept out of the hands of the competition.
We have recently seen one attempt to produce a “secular FT.” The manner of its coming and going teaches a lesson on the contemporary press. Ian Hargreaves was offered the editorship of the Independent in July 1994, when he was deputy editor of the FT. Though floundering financially and sloppy for two years beforehand, the Independent had preserved good writers, a commitment to independence and a readership of around 250,000. Hargreaves sets great store by informed thought and critical examination of policy. That was clear to the board of the Independent when it hired him, and appeared to be the mandate they gave him.
By early 1995, he had been targeted for the sack. David Montgomery, head of the Mirror Group (with 40 per cent of the paper’s equity) saw Hargreaves as a man failing on two counts: to trim the paper’s costs, which were resulting in a loss of ?30m a year; and to move it down market to attract more readers. He wanted to put in Ian Jack, editor of the Independent on Sunday, but Jack, far from acquiescing, left the group to edit Granta. Hargreaves flew to Dublin to seek support from Tony O’Reilly, head of the Irish Independent Group which controls another 40 per cent of the Independent-and also got the support of El Pais, the Spanish paper which owns the other 20 per cent.
For this, Montgomery never forgave him; not even after Hargreaves cut some 25 per cent off the editorial budget-a move which left much bitterness and produced a paper leaner than any other broadsheet. With no publicity budget, Hargreaves pushed the circulation up to close on 300,000. But he was producing a hybrid-reflecting both his own and Montgomery’s uncertainty about how to combine high-mindedness and consumer journalism.
In November last year, on return from a weekend holiday, Hargreaves was called into the Irish Independent Group offices in London, thanked for his contribution, and fired. He was not permitted to go back to his office, and security guards were detailed to ensure he did not attempt to address the staff. His severance deal-as is now standard-forbids him to make public comment, or write, about his experience. Charles Wilson, a former editor of The Times and senior executive of the Mirror Group, was put in as acting editor. Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post, was hired to find a longer term replacement-but he returned to the US without, it seems, finding one.
Thus ended the best chance of establishing an Intellectuals’ Own Paper. The chance may come again, for this class is growing in size and wealth, as the equation of higher education with higher income works its way through. But not now: Montgomery and his colleagues either do not see it or do not like it. They may be in possession of a truth-that such a paper would always be too critical for advertisers to trust or too abstruse for the public to buy. But if we cannot evolve something like this, which maintains a standard of daily critique in a society slipping beyond the comprehensions of our nibbling media, we will dull ourselves further.