No front page published by The Independent was more moving or more important than the edition of 3 September 2015. It was controversial, certainly, to show the distressing image of toddler Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach. It was undoubtedly a harrowing image, but we felt that we could do no other than to share it. Rightly, it shocked a nation, and shamed it too – and to great and noble purpose.
The demonisation of refugees was halted, if only for a time, and The Independent’s Refugees Welcome campaign, together with our powerful coverage of the tragic death of Alan, helped galvanise a growing public movement to save the lives of desperate Syrian refugees fleeing civil war. It was one of the proudest moments in the history of The Independent, and serves as a constant reminder to us that we are journalists for a reason – to tell the stories that matter, uncomfortable or not, and to campaign for change.
Nearly 400,000 signed our petition calling for action, and David Cameron announced days later that 20,000 Syrian refugees would be resettled in the UK by 2020. That process would eventually be completed in 2021.
In conjunction with the Open Britain group, The Independent specifically called for the scrapping of the policy to slash net migration to the UK to “tens of thousands” per year, in favour of less arbitrary targets. In due course, Boris Johnson put aside the target, declining to put a limit on migrants.
Sadly, such campaigns sometimes have to be renewed, if not maintained continuously, in order to have the impact they need. Now, for instance, the Refugees Welcome campaign has had to shift its focus from the Mediterranean to the English Channel – and to the Afghans, betrayed by the west’s abandonment of their country.
They did not invite the Americans and others to invade; nor did they ask them to leave. Now the west must honour their sacrifices and give them the security they deserve. They were prepared to die for Britain, though not in a sinking boat somewhere off Calais.
Celebrating 35 years of The Independent
Still the refugees come, in small, unseaworthy vessels, robbed by the people-traffickers, vulnerable and frightened, uncertain as to what the future may hold for them. As was the case five years ago – and indeed in so many previous episodes, such as the Kindertransports of Jewish children escaping Nazi persecution before the Second World War – the west has not always treated our fellow human beings as we would wish to be treated were the positions reversed.
The Independent believes that many people will respond generously to the appeals of their fellow human beings – which means those appeals have to be amplified in the media before they can be heeded. We continue to push for the UK to settle refugees in excess of the numbers seen from Syria – with support from across the political spectrum.
A still more constant campaigning theme in The Independent’s story has been the very future of the planet. More than two decades ago The Independent declared the climate crisis a transcendent issue: the one that necessarily eclipses all others, vital though they may be.
Indeed, The Independent has been a pioneer in the media in its editorial coverage of the crisis. The modern struggle to restrict emissions of greenhouse gases and combat climate change has coincided with the life of The Independent, and our title has, so to speak, grown up with it.
Over the years our campaigns have supported every aspect of the effort to save the planet. Some have stressed the big picture – like the current drive to stop the banks funding fossil-fuel projects. Others showed the way in which small acts of climate mindfulness and “nudges” from the government could make a huge difference – hence our war on single-use cups.
In the early years we were pleased to highlight the “plight of the bumblebee” (and not just because it was a fine punning headline), the mysterious disappearance of the sparrow (where we offered a reward for a convincing solution), and the loss of wildlife habitats on a global level.
Reader support has been especially valuable in raising funds for the likes of Space for Giants, creating safe havens for the elephants of Africa. Since 2016 our Stop the Illegal Wildlife Trade/Space for Giants: Giants Club appeals have helped reduce the plundering of species from their habitats. The dangers posed by urban wildlife markets in the developing world have been demonstrated to devastating effect by the Covid crisis, which in turn has exacerbated these problems.
With our generous readers, who have donated many millions of pounds over three decades of charity appeals and associated journalism, we have recently added another conservation charity, Freeland, to protect wildlife at risk from poachers due to the crisis in conservation funding caused by Covid-19.
Our readers have always been compassionate and supportive. They recognised the emerging global threats to free and independent journalism detailed in our Journalism Is Not a Crime campaign, led by our indefatigable chief US correspondent, Andrew Buncombe, himself detained in America merely for doing his job as a reporter during the disturbances in Seattle last year. The authorities there would later agree new protections for media and legal observers at protests.
Journalism and politics are intertwined, whether or not those in either universe might hope, or pretend, otherwise. The Independent has been faithful to its founding principle of non-partisanship: ‘It is. Are you?’ Entirely consistent with that, we have also spoken up for the political causes that seem to us to be vital to the wellbeing of the people, whichever groups of politicians happen to support them at any given juncture.
We’ve been consistent in our support for universal human rights, which has driven our fight to protect refugees’ right to life, and also for equal marriage. Our campaign to recognise same-sex marriage – backed by Elton John and Tracy Emin among others – was important in pushing the government towards change. Laws to allow same-sex marriage were passed in England and Wales in 2013, and implemented in 2014. Scotland followed in 2014, and Northern Ireland in 2020. The Rainbow List (formerly the Pink List) recognised influential, openly gay people in the public sphere, before being expanded to all LGBT+ individuals – increasing visibility for underrepresented communities.
The same intellectual and emotional attachment to our founding principles applies to wider political change, and to Britain’s place in Europe. We still believe in electoral reform as the best way to entrench democratic freedoms, and we are proud that our most energising campaign in recent years was for a Final Say referendum on Brexit. We were early to that cause, which eventually attracted huge crowds to the protest rallies, and hundreds of thousands of signatures on the petitions to secure a final democratic judgement on the terms of Brexit. In the end, as we know to our collective cost, definitive consent to the Brexit deal that was hurriedly and carelessly negotiated by Boris Johnson was never secured. It is no great comfort to observe the chaos that is taking over so many aspects of life in Britain as a result.
Campaigning, then, is fundamentally about doing the right thing, and winning the right support at the right time. We will continue to galvanise support for the kind of noble cause we’ve always stood up for, and to use the latest advances in social media and emerging platforms to do just that.