"We may be a crap team, but we have a good time."
Simon Kelner’s retirement seems as good a moment as any to come out of temporary blogtirement, and to say: I love the man, and he saved the Independent, and I don’t care who hears me say that. This will not be universally popular with friends who loathe him and who he fired or abused or drove to distraction.
Kelner took over the Independent at a time of despair and decline. Ownership and management by Mirror Group Newspapers had been a disaster for the paper, and frequent changes of editor left it critically weak. Simon did more than fulfill the minimalist goal of keeping it alive; he gave it back some some swagger, even if that was precisely what some like least about it.
Let us not forget the paper’s Time of Troubles. There were five editors of the Independent during the short period (1995-8) I was deputy foreign editor and then foreign editor: Ian Hargreaves, Charlie Wilson, Andrew Marr, Rosie Boycott, and Andrew Marr again (briefly). Even if each of them had been brilliant editors the result would have been chaos. They weren’t.
Marr, the newsroom’s candidate and fabulous writer and broadcaster, was a catastrophe (he says so in his excellent book, My Trade). Wilson loathed the paper, its journalists and its readers, though he was a good news editor with a good sense of what sold. Hargreaves was insightful and thoughtful and gathered a star team around him, but the timing wasn’t right, the resources weren’t there and management never backed him. Boycott was terrific – a hand grenade thrower and very charismatic – but very shortlived, and probably a better weekly editor than a daily.
Simon knew the paper well: he had been deputy sports editor at the creation in 1986. When I returned to London in the 1990s from Brussels, I was warned against him by a foreign correspondent of Levantine instincts: he would “destroy the paper,” this guy said. In fact I found him entertaining, funny, insightful, news-focussed and hard-working. He bought me lots of drinks, which helped, and gave me a lift home, so I would forgive him a lot for that. He left and went to the Mail, working on features, but we continued to have the occasional drink or twelve. When I was appointed Washington bureau chief in 2008, I went to see him at the Mail to say goodbye. He wasn’t around, and I was little disappointed to miss him; he called me on my way to the airport to tell me he was the new editor of the paper, and my new boss.
Why was Simon a good editor? For a start, unlike all of those above, he had the confidence of the owners. He and Tony O’Reilly, the sports-loving proprietor, would spend long and happy hours on the golf course or at the race track. Journalists disparage this, seeing proprietors in the model established by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop – the odious, dim, overbearing Lord Copper. O’Reilly is smart, affable and happy to mix it with his associates and his ownership of the paper was overwhelmingly positive; Simon and he worked mostly hand in glove.
Secondly, Simon was able to reinvigorate the paper, within narrow resources. It became more populist, which was good: the original team, led by the saintly Andreas Whittam-Smith, had aimed high, for a market that was too small to be sustainable. Simon took a small chunk of a larger market, the upper mid-market left-of-centre. And with the shift to tabloid, he made an advantage of a necessity: changing format saved money and repositioned the paper. He had little cash and few staff, but the result was readable and more agile– the paper had become stuffy and fearful in the 1990s. First the tabloid, then the i (the short short version of the paper) helped destuff it and to give it back some swagger, a quality Simon has in bucketloads.
Thirdly, Simon injected the paper with a new set of values. The founding fathers of the paper (Whittam-Smith, Steven Glover and Mathew Symonds) were ex-Telegraph, Oxbridge, establishment figures. This was a revolution from above, not below.
Simon has a distance and a perspective that helped him steer the paper in a different direction. he is non-metropolitan – he comes from the north somewhere (does it really matter where? Ah, the tyranny of facts. Manchester, I think). He is non-Oxbridge. He comes from bits of journalism that most national editors only ever see in news conference or at the Christmas party: sports and features. Sports, let it be remembered, was one of the glories of The Independent, and to those who don’t read the sports pages in newspapers: you are missing one of the few areas of news where the facts really matter and readers will tear you to shreds if you get them wrong, and where good writing still matters. As for features: the Mail does them really well, and they sell papers. Most readers will spend more time over a coffee with the feature sections than the hardbitten hacks in Home or Foreign News would find conscionable, and even they will probably read the magazine in the toilet, not that long dreary piece on transport policy.
The staff didn’t always appreciate having new values injected into them, and Simon didn’t always wield the needle as gently as he might as slid it into their collective buttocks. Swagger can sometimes edge into arrogance and disdain, in the paper and in person. Other things Simon didn’t do. He didn’t confront digital, and the paper has been slow to catch up. He had little patience with those who sought to question what he was doing or to second guess him, and that led some to leave or be fired when they might have stayed. The paper as it stands lacks some authority because the emphasis has been on innovation, change, youth and flash. There is a cost to this, as the Johann Hari saga shows – a star columnist who stole quotes from others’ stories and used them unattributed. This is an editorial failure and should be acknowledged as such.
But: when I think of the writers the paper still has, whether or not I agree with their views, it is clear that Simon has also kept the paper’s sense of itself, to a remarkable degree, and its insight. On the foreign side of the paper, which I follow most closely: John Lichfield, Rupert Cornwell, David Usborne, Robert Fisk, Andrew Buncombe, Patrick Cockburn, Mary Dejevsky… but also younger writers like Guy Adams, Daniel Howden, or the current foreign editor, Archie Bland.
Why is he going? He has done it for longer than he wanted; he has been ill and would probably like to have a nice time again. He told me when he was appointed he would do it for a decade – and that was 1998. He came back after Roger Alton stumbled under the weight of the paper’s many challenges. The Independent has now reinvented itself and is re-entering a happier time (the end of Labour, the return of the Conservatives and the odd role of the Liberals is good for the paper, and it has some buzz again). He didn’t get on with the new proprietors as well as the old, I think. I doubt the Hari affair had much to do with it, though maybe it cemented his view he wanted to move on and the owners’ view that they needed someone new – someone with more conventional experience (Cambridge, Business Editor), more gravitas, less hair. And so we have Chris Blackhurst, the paper’s tenth editor, I believe (Andreas, Ian, Charlie, Andrew, Rosie, Andrew, Simon, Roger Alton, Simon, Chris).
I won’t romanticize it (too far). The paper has lost money, writers, advertisers, authority and the lives of many of those who work there are tough and unrelenting. Many good people are no longer there simply because of lack of cash or flashes of spite (or both). Simon can be egoistic, short-sighted, obscurantist (oh, look it up), bad-tempered, vain and that’s on a good day. But there wouldn’t be any paper without him; it would have died in about 2000. He is the second-greatest editor of the paper after Andreas and he is The Man Who Saved The Independent (TMWSTI).