By Paul Charman
The Independent’s decision to be the only national newspaper to use a shocking ‘face up’ front page picture of the drowned migrant boy helped change the British government’s refugee policy, according to its young editor Amol Rajan.
“I think it made a difference”, Rajan told a packed audience of members of the Media Society and London Press Club event, supported by Gorkana. The venue was Northcliffe House in Kensington, dubbed ‘the Vertical Fleet Street’ by Press Club chair Doug Wills because it is home, in addition to The Independent, to the Daily Mail, i, The Independent on Sunday, the London Evening Standard, London Live, The Mail on Sunday and Metro.
“I think the British government’s policy position changed quite dramatically in the space of a few days. I had conversations with very senior members of the government who gave me the clear impression that David Cameron was slightly blown away by the response of the British public and I think it would fair and not too arrogant to say that the Independent played a small part in that, of which I am proud.”
Although “slightly sceptical” of hashtag campaigns, Rajan also thought his paper’s Refugees Welcome campaign had an impact in rejecting Cameron’s initial “unspeakably technical and inhumane” response to the crisis. “Immigration is something I feel very strongly about”, he told former BBC news editor Phil Harding.
“I am an immigrant and I want to make the moral case for immigration. My parents came here with very little money and basically it’s a human aspiration”, said Rajan, whose newspaper carried a fiery front-page challenge that day to Home Secretary Theresa May’s conference attack on mass immigration.
Rajan, who admitted his first ambition was to become a spin bowler but was “too fat and too rubbish,” said he liked being editor because of “the job of editorial selection, making the paper work commercially and management”, his least favourite as he had to make redundancies. “It’s tough but if it’s the price to pay for keeping the paper alive, I’ll make it.”
With a third of the budget of his predecessors, his remedy was “to work my nuts off and get everybody else to work their nuts off which can drive everybody mad”. Losses at the newspaper had been steadily decreasing year-on-year, standing at £4.6m last year that he hoped would be “substantially down this year”.
“Are we out of the woods because we are heading towards break even? We are certainly not out of the woods because if you work in journalism, the woods are your home. We have got to get to profitability. Profitability is the best guarantee of independence. We are entirely reliant on the extraordinary generosity of a Russian family, and I genuinely don’t know how long it can go on, but until we get to profitability we are not safe”.
That said, the turnaround at both the Independent and the other big title in the Lebedev empire, the London Evening Standard where huge losses had been turned into profitability, represented “one of the biggest turnarounds in British newspapers”.
While he admitted he answered editorially to Evgeny Lebedev, his “publisher and boss” and spoke with him “most days if he’s in the country about the company, what he’s doing, politics, campaigns and events”, he said he did not interfere. “Do we talk about editorial policy? Of course and I feel quite bullish about this. It would be fantastically naïve to think that a family who has put over £120m into newspapers had not taken an interest in the paper. I can also say that I don’t think Evgeny is an interfering proprietor”.
On the controversial stance of The Independent in May’s general election, which Rajan acknowledged many people wanted to talk about, he conceded the proprietor had discussed it with him, “but he didn’t say do this, do that. He said ‘Do what you think is the right thing for the paper’ ”.
“In fact the party we were closest to was the party of the Liberal Democrats. If you look at the last sentence of my leader, it said that if there’s another coalition, we hoped it’s much less conservative and more liberal democrat. It still got interpreted as ‘The Independent backs the Tories’ and I put my hand up to that and apologise to the extent I was culpable for that representation.
“One of the reasons – maybe it was my naivety or the volcano that erupted online – was that I didn’t react quickly enough. Because when the Tories got in touch and said we are going to spin this and spin it hard, to say the ‘The Independent’s backing the Tories’, in retrospect, I think I should have been much more on the front-foot and defend our position much more quickly and explain that wasn’t the case”.
On his own rise to editorship, he said he didn’t think Fleet Street was “racist”. “I think we have made great progress, I think we have a great range of voices who speak for different minorities. And I think we have made amazing progress in terms of sexual equality. Nor do I think journalism is a posh club… not like politics which seems to have reverted to a weird sort of 1950s or 60s era with an Old Etonian domination – but all eminent and able people of course!”
Paul Charman is a freelance journalist and Honorary Secretary of The Media Society.