The announcement that the Independent has just a month remaining as a physical newspaper and will henceforth only exist in its online incarnation has been met with shoulder-shrugging resignation by some as a sign of the times, which indeed it is. The paper, like many of its competitors such as the Guardian, is operating at a loss where its print edition is concerned, one that will never be recouped. After thirty years as a newsstand alternative, the paper will disappear forever in a handful of weeks, and chances are it’ll be followed be others over the next few years.
In the same way that monochrome and colour TV sets once shared the nation’s living rooms between them, print and online versions of newspapers have coexisted for a decade now, with the latter gradually winning not so much the established readership, but a new and younger one that would never dream of picking up a physical paper. One could take the viewpoint that it’s an arrogant assumption on the part of the publishers that everyone not only has access to the internet, but that everyone would prefer to read their news via that medium. On the other hand, why should Fleet Street proprietors, for all their wealth, continue to print vast copies of print editions when so few people are buying them? A physical paper is now an object with a cult following; the masses have rejected it.
An important downside to this cyber future for the press is the fact that fewer journalists will be required to contribute to it. The editor of the Independent has not shied away from the fact that redundancies will be inevitable when the paper ceases to be printed; dozens of respected specialist writers have already lost their jobs with prominent titles over the past couple of years. A cost-cutting exercise, no doubt, but a newspaper is only ever as good as the sum of its parts, and when journalists with experience stretching back decades are sent packing, the pages their prose has graced lose something that no media-savvy intern who sources all his scoops from his mobile can replace.
Physical newspapers have been such a key part of the British way of life for so long – in their earliest form, stretching all the way back to the seventeenth century – that at one time it would have been hard to imagine the British way of life without them. Like most, I grew up in a household that received at least one paper on a daily basis; in our house, it was the Daily Mirror on a morning and the local rag on an evening; on a Sunday, it was the turn of the Sunday Mirror and the News of the World, as well as the Sunday Times or Telegraph on occasions when my father was indulging in some social-climbing.
Whilst I had little interest in the headlines as a child, it was a different matter where the comic strips were concerned. The Mirror had The Larks, The Fosdyke Saga, Andy Capp and Garth, while the Yorkshire Evening Post had Marmaduke and Alfie Apple. I used to cut some of them out before the papers were dumped in the dustbin the next morning and stick them in a book. You do stuff like that when you’re a kid. The tabloids also had photos of scantily-clad pretty girls, introducing me to the delights of the female form; some might say that aspect of the dailies has dated, but the Mail online is notorious for its sidebar of shame, so what’s really changed?
One could use the argument often used for music, that there’s no difference between downloading online and buying a CD, other than the fact few pay for the privilege when it comes to the former. It’s all just music, innit? But just as there is a growing audience with a newfound appreciation for vinyl and the wonderful work of art that was the LP, there remains something special about a physical newspaper that we will never see again if it disappears. For many years, broadsheet veterans such as the Times had front covers consisting of classified ads rather than news, something that seems bizarre now; but the newspaper front cover from when a major event occurs is still a snapshot of history that online editions couldn’t compete with.
I’ve bought many of them at the time, from 9/11 to the death of David Bowie, with the oldest in my possession being the Mirror from the day after John Lennon was murdered in 1980. Perhaps the fact the newspapers unavoidably report news from yesterday as opposed to today has also played its part in their downfall, especially at a time of instant, 24-hour media when any breaking story can be accessed online within minutes of it happening. On the other hand, detachment from an event, even if only that of a day, can sometimes give one a clearer perspective than an immediate report that merely states speculation.
Even without the arrival of the internet, advances in print technology had already altered the look and feel of newspapers with such speed that it almost feels now that each gimmick was one more last throw of the dice. Colour first appeared on a regular basis with Today, the long-gone tabloid that debuted the same year as the Independent, and digital printing called time on the inky fingers that were part and parcel of the reading experience as well as the chip shop one. If the fate that awaits the Independent is the way of the newspaper future, I fear the diminishing standards of print journalism will cost the non-physical editions dear when read alongside cyber journals of a far higher standard such as Spiked. The writing isn’t on the wall, it’s online.
ERIC LUBBOCK (1928-2016)
While the Profumo affair is widely regarded as the final nail in the coffin for the Conservative administration of Harold Macmillan, there were warning signs that the end was nigh even before Supermac’s Minister for War took a shine to a high-class call-girl. The year before, the Government had suffered a humiliating defeat at a by-election in Orpington, Kent, where it was defending a healthy majority of 14,760. One of the greatest upsets in British electoral history occurred when the seat was sensationally won by the Liberals, with local councillor Eric Lubbock sweeping his Tory opponent aside and ending up with a majority of 7,855. The shock victory shook Macmillan so much that a few months later he axed half his Cabinet in the so-called ‘Night of the Long Knives’.
Lubbock held the seat until the 1970 General Election, but found himself in the Lords a year later when he inherited the title of Baron Avebury; he remained there for the rest of his life, surviving the cull of hereditary peers in 1999. His death yesterday at the age of 87 brings to an end the political career of the longest-serving Lib Dem peer, one marked by a dedication to human rights issues – including seeking a review of the Timothy Evans case two years before Evans received a posthumous pardon. Lubbock was unconventional for a parliamentarian in that his religious beliefs embraced Buddhism and humanism, playing a part in the abolition of the blasphemous libel law; he also possessed a welcome sense of humour, once offering his cremated remains to Battersea Dogs Home.
One of the more likeable grandees of the Lords, Lubbock’s greatest impact on British politics may have been that astonishing achievement at Orpington 54 years ago, but it remains the yardstick by which subsequent by-election shocks have been measured ever since. And that’s not a bad mark to have made.
© The Editor