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A valediction: foreboding for morning papers

19 February 2016

Homage: praise for The Independent in Tuesday’s Guardian

Homage: praise for The Independent in Tuesday’s Guardian

I EXPLAINED the economics of the online newspaper business as best I could last week; so I understand the news that The Independent is to close its print operation as saying that it’s going to live in a really nice farm in the country, where everyone is kind and all the newspapers are happy.

It is astonishing that the paper kept going as long as it did. Someone close to the operation once explained the Lebedevs’ stewardship as a kind of insurance policy: no really rich man in Russia can feel secure, but owning a couple of London newspapers means that, if anything dreadful happens to you, there will at least be a great deal of publicity. Apparently, that calculation has shifted now.

Yet The Independent was, in its time, the most wonderful place to work that could possibly be imagined. The mixture of comradeship, excitement, imagination, and a sense of shared responsibility was quite intoxicating. I can remember running up the steps out of Old Street Tube Station in the morning because I was so eager to start work.

There were several things that made it wonderful to work at, and, on some days, the best newspaper published on the planet. They did not, though, bear any direct relationship to its commercial success.

The journalistic excellence owed a huge debt to Rupert Murdoch for two things. He smashed the print unions, which made The Independent economically possible by freeing us to use what was then the most modern technology. (Just for fun, I tried to calculate the power of the then revolutionary Atex computers that laid out the paper and dealt with the copy. It appears that the whole newspaper could have been produced on the smartphone I have in my pocket today, if it had enough terminals and keyboards plugged into it.)

Murdoch had also smashed up the old Times, leaving a huge group of idealistic and angry journalists eager to show what a really good newspaper could be like. Fifty of them came over to the Indie in one day.

But it also owed a huge debt (as I do personally) to Andreas Whittam Smith, whose rather gawky rectitude and courage gave the paper a moral spine, without in the least bit undermining its sense of fun and excitement. He wanted the paper to be interesting, truthful, and aesthetically pleasing, and he hired the people who made it so. It was a place where almost everyone egged each other on to be better.

He must also be held responsible for the disastrous launch of The Independent on Sunday, a wound from which the business never really recovered. But folie de grandeur is to newspaper editors what silicosis is to miners: they get it from the air they breathe, and, when I read now about The Independent’s underdog spirit, I have to do a double-take, because in his time we were the overdogs.


ANOTHER death foretold appeared in The New York Times: a long article about cancer and the prosperity gospel by Kate Bowler, a Canadian academic in her thirties who has just been told she’s going to die. Last year, she published an excellent book on the prosperity gospellers, and I had interviewed her about it last month; so this was a personally unpleasant shock.

More importantly, it is a quiet, forceful demonstration of what serious Christianity might look like, how it is different from mass Evangelicalism in America, and why this matters:

“Blessed is a loaded term because it blurs the distinction between two very different categories: gift and reward. It can be a term of pure gratitude. ‘Thank you, God. I could not have secured this for myself.’ But it can also imply that it was deserved. ‘Thank you, me. For being the kind of person who gets it right.’ It is a perfect word for an American society that says it believes the American dream is based on hard work, not luck. . .

“The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder.

“At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.

Her words would be true whoever wrote them; but it is a rather grim reflection on the distinction between truth and authenticity that have been published only because she is dying.


ASTONISHINGLY, I can find no news of the General Synod in my morning’s papers. Perhaps it has been edged out by the EU referendum.

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