The appointment of Andrew Marr as editor of the Independent, however
grudgingly accepted by the Mirror Group, is a clear signal that the
struggling paper plans to seize the huge opportunity presented by the
forthcoming General Election. It is a message to both long-suffering
readers, and those who might be wooed back, that here is a paper you
will need to take note of once again, as it has a shrewd political brain
at its controlling centre.
If you set aside the vital internal question of whether Marr can
actually run a newspaper, as well as writing his well-read columns, it
is a logical appointment. People do buy more newspapers during an
election. The fledgling Independent found its salvation during the
General Election campaign of 1987 when readers flocked to enjoy its
aggressive but even-handed political reporting. With a few key
appointments Marr can probably reinvent that stance.
But the larger question for publications broadly sympathetic to Labour -
the New Statesman, Observer, Guardian and the Independent and their
relatively new top editorial teams - is how best to position themselves
in the next two years. All have become accustomed to dissecting Tory
follies. How will they generate interesting copy once Labour is in
power. Will their editors be able to withstand the flattery and
invitations to enter the inner circle, which so grievously wounded
papers like the Sunday and Daily Express under Thatcher?
The Guardian has certainly been pondering this issue. But the paper,
whether cannily or not, has created quite a tension and distance between
itself and New Labour over the past two years. There is a degree of
exasperation over what Blair stands for: whether he will be radical
enough on issues such as the environment, the rush to selective
education and what may be an irrevocably privatised rail network.
This approach can annoy a large part of its readership, but it may also
be a long-term source of strength. The Guardian also has a cadre of
experienced political journalists who are unlikely to have their heads
Marr, as those who read him know, comes over at times as quite pro-
Labour. He is red hot on the need for constitutional reform, a serious
Blairite theme, but he is also quite convinced that Britain cannot
sustain a high taxation corporate state, looking after its citizens from
cradle to grave. Individuals taking responsibility for themselves in a
relatively free market forms part of his bracing stance and may well be
too astringent for a Blair-led Cabinet.
The hardest challenge faces the New Statesman, which is most clearly
tied to Labour’s coat tails. Will it have the bottle to criticise and
satirise as well as dissect? My advice is to introduce a diary of an
Islingtonian to capture the inner bizarre world of champagne socialism.