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From Soviet subs to the evacuation of Kabul, how we’ve reported on an ever-changing world



As foreign news stories go, a sinking Soviet submarine with 27 nuclear warheads onboard is not a bad place to start. And so it was with The Independent. On the top of the front page of the very first edition of the newspaper, on Tuesday 7 October 1986, sat the headline: “Missile Tube blast sank Soviet sub”. The story – written by longtime Newsnight presenter Mark Urban, who 35 years ago was The Independent’s defence correspondent – detailed the frightening and heroic drama of the K-219 submarine.

The saga of the sub was to become an international incident, bestseller and even a film starring Martin Sheen and Rutger Hauer. It was also the precursor to 35 years of international news coverage, which continues to this day.

Since that first day, The Independent foreign news teams have been assigned to cover the collapse of the USSR, the end of apartheid in South Africa, two Gulf wars, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Balkan wars, the Rwandan genocide, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Second Intifada, the rise, fall and rise again of the Taliban, 9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first African-American president in US history, the conflict in Libya, countless refugee crises, the Covid pandemic, and the first host of The Apprentice to become a US president.

The first edition of The Independent, with its story of a Soviet submarine sinking at the top of the page

(The Independent)

These and the countless stories between them reflect the quality of international journalism for which The Independent immediately became noted, even if many of the events themselves shone a none too flattering light on the human condition.

“Foreign news was thought to be an important part of the newspaper,” says Donald McIntyre, a home news correspondent back in October 1986 who went on to become the paper’s Jerusalem correspondent in the 2000s.

The title has always attracted big names. Rupert Cornwell was the paper’s first Moscow correspondent – a post currently held by Oliver Carroll – at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev had embarked upon his perestroika reforms. John Carlin was the paper’s first South Africa bureau chief, at a time when the country was about to undergo a massive transformation from the grim apartheid era.

Celebrating 35 years of The Independent

During his time in South Africa, Carlin wrote Playing the Enemy, the book that inspired the 2009 Oscar-winning movie Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

Rupert Cornwell, the first Independent Moscow correspondent, close to Red Square in 1987

(Susan Cornwell)

One major contributor over the decades has been Patrick Cockburn. A stalwart of international news coverage, Cockburn joined The Independent from the Financial Times in 1990. He reported on the first Gulf war, the 1992 US presidential election, the Chechen war and the collapse of the Taliban after 9/11. He was also one of the first journalists to predict the rise of Isis.

“In 2014, I was writing that the Islamic State was growing very fast and would be on the march soon,” says Cockburn.

He was at a dinner party when his pager alerted him to the assassination of Rabin in November 1995, travelled in a precarious tin boat during the Iraq war, and interviewed Yasser Arafat in Tunis, ending up having to play the recording of the conversation on booming speakers in a hotel ballroom, as it was the only tape recorder able to play back. Cockburn once had to wait some time for an interview with Muammar Gaddafi, but has an invaluable tip to pass the time for any aspiring foreign correspondents – read Jane Austen. “I made sure I had enough good books to read in the hotel,” he says.

Robert Fisk was the paper’s Middle East correspondent from 1989 and covered the wars in Syria and Lebanon, five Israeli invasions and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He won the Press Awards’ foreign reporter of the year award seven times. His name, and his work, stretched far beyond the confines of the newspaper.

Osama bin Laden, photographed by Robert Fisk

(Robert Fisk/The Independent)

Fisk, who died in October last year, attracted a loyal following of readers and is best remembered for interviewing Osama Bin Laden three times in the 1990s. During one of their meetings, Bin Laden, unsuccessfully, tried to convert the journalist to Islam.

Defence editor Kim Sengupta has just returned from one of his more than 20 trips to Afghanistan for The Independent, where he was an eyewitness to the takeover by the Taliban. At The Independent since 1996, when Andrew Marr was the editor, he recalls once being told off at a checkpoint while driving in Afghanistan.

An angry Talib wanted to know why our correspondent would not answer his questions, without realising there was a language barrier. Akbar, the fixer, tried to defuse the situation by saying: “Please don’t mind him sir, he doesn’t mean any offence, he is a bit simple in the head.”

Kim Sengupta in the wreckage of his Baghdad hotel room, damaged in a car bomb attack in 2005

(Getty)

The jihadist waved the car through but not before saying with disgust: “I know this is Afghanistan, but even here someone like that shouldn’t be allowed to drive.”

As the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan this summer, Sengupta travelled to the western city of Herat to watch the militia fighters defending the city in vain, before being the only correspondent from a UK publication present in Kabul as the capital fell. His dispatches gave valuable insight into a foreign policy disaster unfolding in real time as pressure mounted on the British government.

The Middle East correspondent position is currently held by Bel Trew, who has covered stories from the Arab Spring to Yemen’s civil war and the Beirut explosion in 2020. Covering conflict in Israel and Gaza earlier this year, she was fired on by Israeli military airstrikes before being forced to run for shelter from Hamas rockets in Israel on the same day.

Terrence Floyd, brother of George Floyd, speaks to Andrew Buncombe

(Dave Lipman)

Whereas once our reporters would have filed words for use the following day, now they can contribute to liveblogs in real time, publish stories as they break and record video and audio for our expanding audience on Independent TV.

Currently, The Independent has foreign language editions and bureaus in India and in the US with high-profile writers such as Richard Hall and Andrew Buncombe, who last year was arrested while reporting on demonstrations in Seattle, prompting the British ambassador to lodge an official complaint with the American authorities.

They were part of a 20-strong US reporting team covering the dramatic unpredictabilities of the Donald Trump era, through to the election last November and the events on Capitol Hill in January, as well as Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Thirty-five years ago, The Independent set out to comprehensively cover international news. And now, with a reporting team spanning the globe, that is what it continues to do.



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