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October 26, 2022updated 13 Dec 2022 1:02pm

Independent editor says title remains ‘politically neutral’ but has ‘strong views’ amid call for general election

By Bron Maher

The Independent’s acting editor David Marley has said being “independent” does not mean having to be “bland” as he explained why the title is calling for a general election.

Its political neutrality also does not stop the website from having “incredibly strong views about issues that we feel passionate about,” he added.

The Independent’s petition calling for a general election had more than 440,000 signatures at the time of publication on Wednesday morning.

A week earlier, it had become the first national publisher to advocate for a public vote – even before then-Prime Minister Liz Truss had resigned.

Since then the Daily Mirror has launched its own petition, and at least one Conservative MP has called for Parliament’s dissolution.

Why does The Independent want a general election?

Press Gazette spoke to Marley on Monday, shortly after Penny Mordaunt pulled out of the Conservative leadership contest, leaving Rishi Sunak as prime-minister-in-waiting. 

Marley said: “We think that, with Rishi Sunak becoming the third Prime Minister in less than two months, there’s some serious questions to be asked of him. And the only people who are getting to make those decisions about who’s leading our country at the moment are either, in Liz Truss’ case, a small number of Conservative Party members, and in Rishi Sunak’s case, an even smaller number of Conservative Party MPs.”

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In the short term, Marley said the trigger for The Independent’s campaign and petition had been Truss proceeding with a heterodox economic agenda “with no wider mandate”. The market reaction to her policies, and the subsequent dooming of her administration, clinched the decision.

[Read more: Daily Star lettuce world exclusive first interview – We’re ‘not anti-Tory, we’re anti-idiot’]

“We’re not saying that every time a party changes leader there needs to be an election,” Marley said. But, even with Rishi Sunak in office proceeding with a more conventional Tory economic platform, Marley said The Independent wanted an election.

“The constitution might allow for us to change prime ministers every week, but politically it’s wrong, and it means in our view that the government lacks democratic legitimacy.

“And we believe, as a fundamental principle, that the decision of who’s leading the country should be given to the people, there should be a general election.”

Had Independent readers been demanding a general election already?

The chicken-egg question with newspapers and their readers is which leads the other. Had The Independent’s campaign for a general election been a response to reader demand, or had The Independent’s editors sensed this was a position their readers would likely endorse?

“I don’t think we’re aiming to lead them,” Marley said. “Certainly, we had received – we still [get] letters, even without a physical newspaper, we still have letters. And definitely, there was a feeling that this was the right kind of thing.

“But also you see it on social media, and you see it talked about, and it was clear that there was a groundswell of opinion that having a general election was the right thing to do.”

Marley emphasised that The Independent did not want to “tell people how to vote in an election, or that we want to see a particular party installed. It’s more a point of principle that we think that the voters should have the right to make the decision.”

What does it mean to be ‘independent’?

Per its name, The Independent originally launched to be apart from the politicised press. How did that fit with campaigns like this and its former “Final Say” campaign for a referendum on the Brexit deal, which topped one million signatures?

Marley said: “I think that campaigning has always been at the core of The Independent’s history.

“Part of what gives The Independent its independence is that we don’t have a particular allegiance to a political party. But that has never meant that we are bland in how we tell the news or that we don’t take incredibly strong views about issues that we feel passionate about.

“And if you look through The Independent’s history, there are lots of things that we’ve campaigned for over the years and taken very strong stances on. One former editor [Simon Kelner] used the term ‘viewspaper’ [to describe The Independent] and that’s still a legitimate and accurate way to think about some of the things that we do.”

The Independent has twice rebooted its “Refugees Welcome” campaign – originally launched for Syrian refugees in 2015 – to argue for the UK to accept refugees from Afghanistan and then Ukraine.

Going further back, Marley said the then-newspaper began campaigning for a switch to proportional representation in 2006. It had also been an active voice in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq.

Some commentators – mainly on the right – would argue The Independent has developed a left-bent. What would Marley make of that? 

“As I say, we’re politically neutral. We don’t slavishly follow or support any one political party. We report the news as accurately and straightly as we can. And we don’t shy away or apologise for campaigning or taking a stance on issues that we believe are important.

“I think also, if you’ve had a Conservative or Conservative-led government for 12 years, inevitably, we’re going to push against some of the things that the parties in power are trying to implement. So I can see how a conservative commentator might want to make that argument, but I think it’s about some of those old arguments about holding power to account.”

Petition rivals

Mirror general election now front page
Mirror front page on 21 October 2022

As of Wednesday morning, the Mirror’s petition calling for a general election had 140,000 signatures. The more avowedly left-wing publication launched its campaign on Thursday. How did Marley feel about the parallel petition?

“I don’t want to crow about numbers. But I think – I haven’t actually checked this today, but I think we were something like four or five times bigger. We got there first, you know, [but] we’re delighted they’re on board with it.

“What was interesting as well is that today, you’ve also got Conservative MPs, even, saying that a general election is now either an inevitability or something that actually is kind of democratically needed.”

The Independent this month co-launched a “Feed the Future” campaign with sister title the Evening Standard. Was collaboration between the two papers common?

“Occasionally we do,” said Marley. “We’ve tended to run our Christmas campaigns together in the past, and there may be the odd one that comes up during the year that we decide to, where it suits us both to do that together…

“There’s a great investigations and campaigns editor, David Cohen, who works across both titles, so sometimes it works to bring us together.”

Both the Standard and Independent share Evgeny Lebedev as a proprietor – a man known to have promoted a campaign or two for them himself. Had Marley heard from him at all about the general election petition?

Marley laughed at the suggestion. “No, I haven’t! No, he leaves me be. He doesn’t contact me about these kinds of things.”

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