Independent newsroom concerned by possible Liddle appointment

The possible appointment of Rod Liddle as editor of the Independent is concerning the paper's newsroom. One journalist tells this blog they are considering leaving.

On Wednesday, Russian billionaire and Evening Standard owner Alexander Lebedev announced that he is to sell his stake in the Russian airline Aeroflot, raising £247m in liquidity just as he manoeuvres his way through the final stages of negotiations to purchase The Independent and The Independent on Sunday titles.

As noted on this blog, the indicators point that Lebedev’s number one choice for editor is a certain Rod Liddle, famed by accusations of racism, misogyny and, anti-Semitism. But how are staff at the paper reacting to the news? And what impact would the appointment of a controversialist under Lebedev’s ownership have on the future of The Independent

Resistance to wholesale upheaval is clear in The Independents’ newsroom. One journalist spoke to Left Foot Forward on the condition of anonymity:

“If it looked like Rod Liddle’s columnising was a deliberate controversialist posture and not really a representation of his real views, then I would swallow hard and at least wait to see what he did with the Indy. But if his goat curry persona was represented in our pages, I guess I’d consider leaving.

“The trouble about this newsroom is no-one really knows much: communication is nonexistent, which is understandable but frustrating (a common refrain in the office, everyone’s annoyed by it).

“I still feel, just about, that ultimately the powers that be will twig that this is a bad idea. But the longer it goes on the harder it is to be sure.”

“It’d be very sad if Roger Alton and Ian Birrell left. They’re good people both, and neither deserves to be forced out in this way; Ian would make a very good editor, and Roger is a really great guy, albeit an odd fit for the Indy. Whatever the appeals of having a controversialist, a proven editor of a successful and newsbreaking journalistic enterprise in charge, that initial publicity boost will be overridden by the fact that a very large proportion of Indy readers will jump ship at the idea of a man with a reputation as a racist taking over. And we can’t afford to lose a large proportion of readers”.

If Lebedev does buy the Indy, he will have his work cut out to turn the titles around. Circulation figures reveal that it sold less than 150,000 full price copies in the UK in December 2009, making it our lowest selling national. In recent years it has been hampered by the triumvirate challenges of a fraction of their rivals’ staff numbers, annualised budget cuts further weakening the content, and a pricing policy that is an inaccurate reflection of the product.

Can Lebedev surmount these challenges? Clues as to what he might do can be found in his track record as owner of London’s Evening Standard. After purchasing the struggling title last year, he immediately transformed the editorial tone (launched with the ubiquitous “We’re Sorry” tube adverts of last spring) by creating more space for celebrity stories, sport and popular culture. He then turned the paper free, set about cutting staff, removed early and later editions of the papers, and limited its distribution to central London. Although he is a reportedly an extremely wealthy man, Lebedev clearly does not think the Standard is a vehicle worth investing in.

Together, it seems likely a Lebedev-Liddle combination at the Indy would produce a more provocative, frivolous, attention-seeking paper; in short, the kind of publication which is perfect for the disposable, instantaneous culture of free news.

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