There can’t be many people with any affection for the Independent who are happy about the idea of Rod Liddle becoming editor. But there probably aren’t very many people left with much affection for the Indy at all, because the brand seems to have specialised in weird and reputation-squandering reversals. Its Sunday version campaigns for the legalisation of cannabis, but then decides that skunk is actually a deadly menace. It doesn’t support the Iraq war, but then recruits the Observer editor who put the made-up case for war on his front page.
Appropriately, Liddle was indirectly behind one of the other great journalistic screw-ups of the Iraq war – as editor of Today, he recruited Andrew Gilligan, who both found an internal source to blow the whistle on the exaggerations and bad intelligence in the “45 minutes” dossier, and then ruined the story’s credibility by mishandling his quotes and revealing his source.
But Liddle had left the Today programme the year before “sexed up” became a slogan, in 2002 – after a column he wrote for the Guardian was deemed to have shown unacceptable bias. (Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s director of news from 2001-4, hinted at the challenges of employing Liddle in a tweet, above.)
Since leaving Today, Liddle has concentrated on obnoxious opinionising for the Times and the Spectator. And, in the same way his Guardian fox-hunting column relentlessly tracked the grossest prejudices of his presumed readers (toffs are loathsome because, well, they’re toffs), his later ones have offered racial determinism and climate-change denial to right-wing readers. He has a talent for presenting exactly what he thinks his readers want to hear as though it’s a consensus-shaking blast of radicalism, and no facility for (or interest in) figures or facts.
If Alexander Lebedev gets the Independent, and if Liddle gets the job, it might be that Liddle’s crowd-pleasing reflexes will give Indy readers something to grab onto and stop them drifting away. Or he may retain that reactionary edge, and the Indy could become a new middle-market tab – an aspirational answer to the Express. Both of which feel like things that journalism could do without.
Update 9 January 2010: Sunder Katwala thinks all the speculation is a bit premature.
© Sarah Ditum, 2010