LORD DRONE’S MIGHTY FLEET STREET ORGAN,
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MONDAY 4 MARCH 2024
Steady Eddy, the maverick who beat the unions and changed the print industry
PIONEER: Eddy Shah broke the power of the print unions
There is an old story about Press baron Roy Thomson – you might have heard it – that perfectly illustrates why the launch of Today newspaper was not only possible, but necessary.
Lord Thomson of Fleet, as we should properly call him, had bought The Times in 1959 and turned up on a meet-and-greet mission.
As he strolled round the building, he was introduced to a print union official.
“How do you do,” he said, “I’m Roy Thomson, the new owner of this newspaper.”
“You may own it,” said the union boss. “But I run it.”
He was right, of course. The unions dictated the terms and if newspaper managements were compliant, they got their paper out. If not, the giant presses remained silent and their rivals gratefully took up the slack.
But times were changing. The industries forged from the Industrial Revolution – steel, coal mining, shipbuilding – were in steep decline. By the early 1980s, they were on their knees.
I recall watching a Seventies Panorama programme on the steel industry (I was working in a steel town at the time, so it was homework). They had a sort of Heath Robinson clock ticking up the losses in the industry as the programme progressed.
The graphics were not very impressive in those days. But the figures on the clock were. A king’s ransom had gone down the drain by the time the reporter – David Dimbleby, perhaps, or Tom Mangold? – signed off.
People were sick of the unions’ dominance. It was one of the reasons Margaret Thatcher swept to power in 1979. High on her agenda: Reform union laws.
The print unions held out longer than most, defying common sense, ensuring that Fleet Street retained its corrupt practices and newspapers were produced by methods that hadn’t changed that much since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.
It is one of my Fleet Street regrets – there are many – that I did not work for Today. It seemed like such a brave and ground-breaking venture. Or adventure, if you like.
And it would have given me the chance to work with two of the more interesting characters in national newspapers; one arguably charismatic, the other, not so much. I mean Eddy Shah and David Montgomery.
Shah, now 80, was the founder of Today, an entrepreneur and a maverick who became the nemesis of the print unions, and especially the National Graphical Association (NGA). He is also a fourth cousin of the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Nizari sect of Ismaili Moslems.
Aga Khan. The title is redolent of wealth and power. It conjures up fast cars, thoroughbred racehorses and beautiful women of equally pure pedigree.
Authors David Goodhart and Patrick Wintour, in their 1986 book Eddy Shah and the Newspaper Revolution, reported that Shah remembered, as a boy in the Fifties, being with the third Aga Khan in Karachi when followers presented him with his own weight in platinum.
Selim Jehan “Eddy” Shah, though hardly poor – he attended King Charles’s hated Scottish public school, Gordonstoun – didn’t have inherited wealth to smooth his path.
The battle of Winwick Quay
In 1983, he was bringing out five free sheets from a small industrial estate called Winwick Quay, in Warrington, Lancs. He had set up his first newspaper with £3,000 profit from the sale of his first house.
He rejected the “closed shop” model of union representation, saying that his employees had the right to choose whether they joined a union. He also insisted that he had the “right to manage”.
Before long, the NGA was camped on his doorstep. That didn’t work. Shah and the small but loyal staff at his Messenger Group kept the papers coming out. So the NGA upped the ante and brought in flying pickets, specifically outlawed by Thatcher’s new legislation.
The union faced repeated fines for secondary picketing. In one 10-day period it parted with £150,000 and eventually its entire £11 million assets were seized.
On Tuesday November 29, 1983, pickets began arriving from all over Britain: NGA men from Liverpool, Scottish miners, London dockers. The police were ready for them. The Home Office had decreed that no expense was to be spared in protecting Shah.
Reinforcements were standing by, including Manchester’s elite Tactical Aid Group and the Met’s Special Patrol Group.
When the 1,500 pickets began to crush police against the buckling doors of Shah’s warehouse he called Andrew Neil, new editor of the Sunday Times. Outraged, Neil phoned Home Secretary Leon Brittan.
Police went on the offensive. Snatch squads dived into the crowd to seize troublemakers. Tactical Aid Group officers in full riot gear attacked with batons. Missiles rained down on them but victory was theirs.
At 4.45am, Shah’s newspaper vans drove quickly out of the plant and past the last remaining diehard union men, to shouts of “scab”.
Two weeks later, Len Murray’s Trades Union Congress refused to back the NGA, effectively hoisting a white flag. The union had lost £2 million and the balance of power had swung back to employers.
Eddy Shah, so composed through the dispute, sat at his desk, shaking uncontrollably as he took in the enormity of what he had done.
Andrew Neil finally met Shah in person on February 7, 1984, at the Savoy. Shah was restless after his victory and Neil, who made no secret of his contempt for the print unions and their Spanish practices, urged him to do in Fleet Street what he had done in Warrington.
Shah listened and flying back to Manchester, took a cigar packet and used it to calculate circulation, revenue and production costs for a new national newspaper.
Today was on the drawing board.
Shah spent months trying to raise capital and being rebuffed. But he finally got an offer from a consortium headed by the Hungarian International Bank of £6.5 million to go alongside Shah’s £1.5 million deposit to buy four presses.
Now it needed people. Brian MacArthur, former editor of the Western Morning News in Plymouth, was hired as editor-in-chief; Jonathan Holborow, from the Mail on Sunday, was weekday editor; and Tony Holden was weekend editor.
Pat Pilton, former night editor of this parish, was Executive Editor and would deputise for Holborow at the paper’s offices in Vauxhall Bridge Road. Pilton tells his story of the paper’s early struggles elsewhere in The Daily Drone.
Also on the staff from 1988 to 1995 was Rory Clements, another former Expressman, who joined Today as chief features sub.
Now an accomplished and successful author of spy thrillers, Clements recalls working with such journalists as Jane Moore, features editor, and Amanda Platell, who later became editor of the Sunday Express and recruited me to be its night editor. She now writes a popular column for the Mail.
It was hard work, says Clements, because money was tight and resources scarce. “We were always up against it,” he told me. “But Today was good fun – lots of laughs, lots of parties.”
Just as well, really. He met his wife, the brilliant painter Naomi Clements-Wright, at a Today Christmas do in 1993 and they now have two children together.
During his time there, circulation was always hovering around 600,000 – a figure which, as Clements points out, many newspaper bosses would kill for now.
It launched on March 4, 1986, to a fanfare of advertising with the tagline “We’re ready, Eddy.” Well, they weren’t. The colour register was all over the place and the teething troubles provoked jocular derision on the art desk of the Daily Express. Art Editor Tim Holder would regularly sketch shaky, multi-coloured versions of the unfortunate motto.
But once into its stride, the paper put the frighteners on its competitors, principally the Mail and the Express. Nick Lloyd coveted its computer typesetting and full-colour printing and feared its effect on the Express’s faltering circulation.
Within months, Shah had sold Today to Tiny Rowlands’s Lonrho and in 1987, Rupert Murdoch bought it. With his considerable wedge behind it, many expected the paper to go from strength to strength and it remained a good, middle market stablemate for his other publications.
However, Murdoch demonstrated the unsentimental ruthlessness that made him the foremost businessman of his generation by shutting it down on November 17, 1995. He wanted its print capacity for The Sun. The adventure was over.
Rory Clements remembers that the redundancy terms were generous. And they were optional – anyone who wanted to stay could join The Sun or The Times.
The paper had done its job. It changed the production methods and the finances of Fleet Street for ever. It laid the groundwork for Murdoch to open his Wapping plant. It altered the role of sub-editors, who almost overnight became typesetters, too.
Above all, it scythed down the all-powerful print unions. Mickey Mouse was no longer on the payroll.
Way back when my sons were little, we would take them to play mini-rugby at the London Scottish ground in Richmond. This, according to academics at universities I have barely heard of, makes me a child abuser.
One of our boys relished the rough and tumble and was a fast and elusive back until he discovered beer and women. The other was more reluctant to pull on the dark blue jersey with the red lion rampant on the breast.
But he would turn up with his big brother and join in, hands in the pockets of his immaculate white shorts, wandering around at full-back, humming to himself. He once got hit full in the face by an up-and-under that he never saw coming, which earned him a gentle rebuke from Gavin Hastings, the Scotland great and club captain who occasionally turned up to coach the minis.
I thought these Sunday morning games did the children good. It was fun, got them running around, made them fitter, toughened them up and arguably helped them to solve problems. (How do I tackle this big centre bearing down on me, without getting pulverised?)
But this was in a gentler era when all rugby was amateur – if you don’t count the boot money. True, it was a bruising contact sport and players occasionally got hurt. But the rules were clear and most people played for the fun of it, during and especially after the match.
Then, without doing the arithmetic or the due diligence of business, the game turned professional. Winning became a paramount concern, coaches came up with techniques and tricks, many of them drawn from Rugby League, to make victory more likely.
And because the game had to attract new spectators, those who ran the sport tweaked the rules to make it faster, sexier. They reckoned, of course, without the law of unintended consequences. For each innovation in the rule book, coaches invented an antidote, often laced with danger.
You could see them on Saturday, in the opening matches of this year’s Six Nations. The two-man tackle imported from Rugby League is countered by the man with the ball going in low, so that his side can retain possession after the collision.
So the tacklers go in low, too. A shoulder that was meant to be directed at the sternum ends up crashing into a head. And the perp ends up on the naughty step for 10 minutes, or even dismissed for the rest of the match.
Fifteen-year-olds watching this on TV think that’s the way to do it and suddenly school rugby is not just vigorous but brutal and downright dangerous.
I am not sure I would feel comfortable for my children play rugby these days. So perhaps the academics from Winchester, Nottingham Trent and Bournemouth universities have a point.
They don’t seem to produce any evidence, though, just the opinion that the possibility of concussive injuries “runs counter to child abuse laws”.
But what really irks me is that they chose the eve of the Six nations tournament to publish their paper in Sports Ethics and Philosophy: Journal of the British Philosophy of Sport Association.
A cheap and easy way for an ambitious professor to get their name in the newspapers, with the promise of media appearances to follow. And not too much intellectual rigour required.
Headline of the week from The Times about a runaway monkey that was recaptured as he apparently returned home to a Cairngorms wildlife park: Runaway macaque was missing his best primates.
I like it, not just because it tells the story with sharp wit, but because I can see exactly how it came to be written.
It might have been the work of a lone sub-editor, mulling over the facts. But it could also have been a committee job by two or more subs in a pub on an illicit slope.
The conversation probably went something like this:
“So why was this monkey going back to the park?”
“Well, a bloke from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland says they’re social animals and he was heading back to see his mates.”
“You mean, his PRI-mates.”
Jubilant cries, back-slapping, beer spilt. A quick mental calculation.
Down the hole, Harry, as they say in Tenerife.
6 February 2024