31 AUGUST 1985, Page 19


The press: Paul Johnson foresees tumultuous technological changes

THE dispute at Mirror Group newspapers is the opening drum-roll of a sensational season of crisis and innovation which will engulf all Fleet Street. The ostensible cause of the strike/lockout is the refusal of the elite composing union, the NGA, to accept Robert Maxwell's decision to trans- fer the printing of Sporting Life threatened by a new Arab-owned racing daily — from its hyper-expensive Holborn plant to a much cheaper subsidiary of Pergamon Press in Bermondsey. No jobs would have been lost but cuts in bonus and Overtime, and all the other old Spanish Customs, would have set an ominous precedent. A showdown between Maxwell and the print unions was inevitable from the moment he captured the Mirror Group. I applauded his takeover because I thought him the man most likely to con- duct the coming Armageddon forcefully and with success. Indeed he must succeed, in my opinion, if the group is to survive at all.

For the technological changes which have overshadowed Fleet Street for so long, and which the unions have resisted with such a contemptible blend of short- term greed and long-term folly, are now imminent. Several provincial groups have won, or are winning, their campaign to force technical change on the unions, and are now the best part of a decade ahead of the nationals. Foreigners are installing new systems within a stone's throw of Fleet Street. In the wake of the Wall Street Journal's introduction of global satellite publication, the Asahi Shimbun of Japan will soon begin satellite printing in Lon- don, as well as Paris and Dusseldorf. As the revolution gathers pace, the competi- tive advantages accruing to those who use the new methods will intensify. Fleet Street Is already Slow Street; in the end it could be Dead Street.

The importance of Eddie Shah is that, at one bound, he is bringing a great clutch of the new methods right to the centre of the national scene. His proposed seven-day newspaper, due early next year, will be produced at one-fifth of the cost of the existing nationals: it is a technological arrow aimed straight at Fleet Street's sluggish heart. Other changes are due too: the evening edition of Murdoch's proposed

London Post, printed in Tower Hamlets, will be on sale in March, with the morning edition following in September. And, just for the record, Clive Thornton says his new left-wing weekly, the News on Sunday, will be launched in October, though he has not yet found the finance. But it is the Shah project which really scares Fleet Street managements, and indeed editors too, as Shah continues to pinch some of their best talents.

Who will be the casualties if Shah's venture succeeds? I write 'if because while I have great confidence in his ability to beat or outmanoeuvre the unions, and strong hopes that the new technology will work first time round, I am by no means sure that the editorial formula will be right. If that fails to excite potential readers, the entire experiment will collapse in ruins, to the sneers and delight of all the most reactionary elements in Fleet Street, un- ions and management alike. What I fear is that the new paper will be the English equivalent of USA Today, America's new- technology coloured national, which is now three years old and sells 1,300,000 copies, making it the biggest in the States after the Wall Street Journal and New York Daily News, but remains little more than a colourful publishing gimmick. To succeed at all, the Shah paper must have strong editorial qualities: excitement, incisiveness in comment, above all lots of real news the red meat of journalism.

Assuming, however, that Shah produces a viable editorial product, the Fleet Street carnage will be horrific. The Express and `Bang! Bang! You're dead.' the Mirror groups look to me the more vulnerable targets. Rupert Murdoch's populars are relatively cheaply produced papers and field leaders which make enor- mous profits. The News of the World, for instance, has now pushed itself over the five-million mark again, and with a circula- tion of 5,004,000 it is selling nearly two million more copies a week than each of its Mirror Group rivals, the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People. Equally, Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, while making little or no profits from these titles, has tremendous financial strength. The stock- brokers Henderson Crosthwaite, who re- cently made an analysis of the internal finances of this laconic company, calculate that the losses on its two nationals, £19 million in the year up to the end of 1984, should fall to nine million this year and only three million in 1986, as the daily moves into profit and the Sunday's huge promotional expenditure drops sharply. Thanks to its successful provincial chain and its Euromoney operation, the group's publishing interests make an overall profit of nearly six million pounds even as things stand, plus nearly £16 million from its outside interests. Hence the analysis pre- dicts that the group's total profits will leap from £21.7 million in 1984 to £38 million this year and £54 million in 1986. Thus both News Group and Associated are well prepared to stand all but the most dramatic shocks.

With the Express group it is a different matter, for the Daily Express still does not look happy as a tabloid and the Sunday Express is an old, inflexible formula badly in need of fundamental change; the most valuable parts of the group are its Reuters shareholding and the Morgan Grampian publishing interests. It has come a long way from its nadir under the late Sir Max Aitken but in my view it requires both new leadership and the support of a much bigger group. United Newspapers, which has now got the Government's clearance to pursue its takeover, is no bigger financial- ly, and its bid may not be the answer. But it would be better than nothing in the stormy days ahead. As for the Mirror Group, its editorial demoralisation (thanks to Max- well's hyperactive meddling) and its cir- culation losses, especially in the Sunday field, must make it the prime target for Shah's attack.

Hence Maxwell is right to have a regle- ment des comptes with the unions now, while his combined resources are still formidable, rather than later, when the general crisis the Shah experiment is likely to provoke engulfs Fleet Street. If Maxwell can break the spirit of the NGA at Holborn Circus, as Shah broke it in the north, and so put the fear of God into the other unions at the Mirror Group, he can achieve really formidable production savings and present an order of battle of stripped-down nation- als next year. It is greatly in the interests of journalism, and so of the nation, that he wins this one.