Round one to Andrew Marr. He has surprised us all. In the brief month of
editing the Independent, Marr the enthusiast has managed to get the
paper talked about again, which is more than his predecessors,
Hargreaves (the plodder) or Wilson (the cynic) ever did.
The rest of Fleet Street is taking note. Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily
Mail, concedes he has made a brilliant start. Best of all, the Guardian,
with most to lose if the Independent were to punch its weight once
again, seems a bit rattled, as if muttering ‘don’t panic, don’t panic’.
Much of this has been achieved, however, by what I can only describe as
gesture journalism. Subtle it ain’t. When front page headlines of the
‘Teaching trainees have the worst A-levels’ school surface you feel
shocked, such is the impact of the Independent’s new game. Authored
columns, Howard Hodgkin on Degas, Polly Toynbee on the nasty Daily Mail
have migrated to the front page. But how many times can you play the
Degas card? Only once I’d say. And this is the problem with gesture
journalism? It is all very fine and dandy, but it is gimmicky window
dressing, and certainly not a recipe for salvation even when you have
the youngest readership in the broadsheet niche.
It needs to be backed up with solid journalism, otherwise a paper which
dares to turn its back on the main story of the day risks looking
amateur. It can even seem to suggest that serious reporting is not the
name of the game, a dangerous by-way for a newspaper of the
Independent’s still highish reputation to turn down.
And this is where Marr’s bravura meets reality. Alas, the new rush of
enthusiasm and confidence cannot disguise the paper’s slender resources,
more suited to the production of a quali-pop tabloid. I am deeply
attached to the paper but the standard of reporting is so variable. Some
stories make me wince, they seem to be written by untrained juniors, yet
they sit next to others produced by seasoned professionals.
There is also a lack of variety and tone, the inevitable consequences of
too many cuts and resignations. The recently introduced arts news page
is fine, but there are many things strangely absent. This is compounded
by the problem of over-writing. The tiny inner core of top writers and
commentators churn out too much. It is getting boring. I long for fresh
voices, especially in the Saturday edition. I don’t need a weekly pep
talk from the editor. And why is the Independent so strangely bereft of
top women feature writers, apart from the over-exposed Toynbee? This gap
is most obvious in the sad tabloid second section.
So the truth is that Marr has a huge mountain to scale which enthusiasm
alone cannot conquer. Funds are limited but he has to find an infusion
of serious talent. The message for the Guardian is clear: no need to