Magnificent on Iraq, but no longer a player

At heart a bland creature, the <em>Independent</em> presents on its front page the alarming exterior

This month, the Independent marks its 20th birthday. To many, it will seem sadly diminished from the days when it appeared to threaten the Times and Guardian. Its average daily sales in August were just over 250,000, more than 100,000 behind the Guardian, 425,000 behind the Times, and 650,000 behind the Telegraph. Even that 250,000 is helped by a high proportion of overseas and bulk sales (free copies handed out by, for example, airlines). UK sales at the full rate are barely 170,000.

The paper depends financially on the support of its owner, Tony O'Reilly. It's not exactly vanity publishing - owning a London daily has the same kind of brand value in international business as a clutch of peers on your board - but it's a long way from the principles of sturdy self-reliance on which the Independent was founded.

Nor does it make many waves these days. Its reporting and analysis of news from the Middle East, particularly Iraq, has been relentless and magnificent; no other daily paper comes close. Its specialist correspondents on education, the environment and science, for instance, are still among the most reliable and authoritative. But the Independent is not much talked about in Westminster, Whitehall or any other power centre. It does not set the agenda; it is not, in the jargon, "a player".

This is largely because the paper lacks a coherent constituency. It does not speak for the liberal establishment, as the Guardian does, or for the Tory heartlands, as the Telegraph does. The best place to find typical Independent readers, I have always thought, is in those draughty art-house cinemas that show old French films.

Most newspapers have deep tribal loyalties; the Independent, as befits its name, is refreshingly non-tribal. This lack of (or, if you prefer, freedom from) tribal identity goes back to the early years. Andreas Whittam Smith and his co-founders saw Fleet Street hamstrung by old technology and overmanning by the print unions. Newspapers could be published at far lower cost, they reckoned, and there would be ample money left for journalists' salaries, editors' cars and founders' profits. This economic analysis convinced them to start a new paper. Only then did they ask what they should put in it, or even what they should call it.

Startling subversives

Their own inclinations were towards Thatcherism with a more human face. They expected to recruit most readers from the Telegraph, then extraordinarily old-fashioned in appearance and tone, and apparently close to bankruptcy. But Telegraph readers were too old to change paper and it was on the road to recovery by the time the Independent launched.

The Guardian, for its part, was struggling with the consequences of Rupert Murdoch's move to Wapping. Because he had sacked his printers, the Guardian also had to consider new technology and cost cuts, a troubling prospect for a management and workforce of delicate liberal sensibilities. And because it was still printed on Murdoch's abandoned and unreliable pre-Wapping presses, it often came out late, and was always full of misprints.

Moreover, many of the founding journalists at the Independent (of whom I was one) seemed to believe that, as there was no conventional proprietor, they had joined some sort of workers' co-operative. Their copy was startlingly subversive, and editorial controls were too loose - one of the cost savings was in sub-editors - to do anything about it.

So the Independent, initially at least, took most of its readers from the Guardian. Conceived with one kind of readership in mind, it found itself with a quite different one which, at times, it misjudged badly. For example, its tone during the first Gulf war was too gung-ho. Nobody expected it to oppose the war. But its editors did not understand that, to adapt Walpole, the English liberal tradition is to march to war while wringing hands, not ringing bells.

The Independent has never quite resolved this quirk in history, whereby it acquired a leftish readership and reputation by accident. It now claims to be a "viewspaper", but the views on its news pages, particularly its front page, are further to the left, and far bolder, than most on its comment pages. At heart a conservative, even bland creature, it presents the alarming exterior of a rabid dog.

Still, we should be thankful the Independent exists at all - without it, the Guardian would be the only paper upmarket of the Mirror to give space to radical journalism. Whittam Smith's idea was that, if papers were viable businesses, shareholders would put money in just to make profits, without demanding editorial control. It hasn't worked out quite like that. Yet O'Reilly, though no lefty, is a businessman who thinks the paper worth owning, and recognises that its most precious asset is the independence of journalists such as Robert Fisk. In an imperfect world, we should settle for that, and join the Independent in celebrating its birthday.