14 APRIL 1961, Page 13



No industry likes to be told that it is inefficient, unenterprising, or anything less than perfect. But British printing has probably suffered enough recent blows to its complacency —in the closing of newspapers, Me reports of foreign superiority, both technically and in organisation, and the successful assaults on its home markets by unconventional print- substitutes—to make it amenable to advice from outside.

The Royal Commission on the Press, therefore, has a great opportunity of inspiring the industry to turn over a new leaf. But if Lord Shavvcross and his colleagues are to get to the bottom of the complaints from employers and unions about each other's failings and wickedness, they will have to cast their eyes far beyond Fleet Street, into both the provin- cial press and the commercial printing world, which is inextricably connected with it. It is impossible to consider the newspapers in a vacuum; they are part of a larger and com- plex trade whose problems—and particularly shortage of labour and restriction on recruitment—form an important part of the ills of the press. Let us take a look at general printing.

COMPETITION is a useful measure of efficiency for any industry, and the Commission would do well to study how effectively British printers compete. Although the industry here is afforded some natural shelter by language barriers and by the inconvenience to the customer, particularly in the matter of proof-reading. in having work done abroad, some alarm has been expressed in recent years at the way in which printing contracts have been going overseas—and it is feared that more will go abroad, if there is freer trade as the result of EFTA and (should Britain join it) the Common Market.

The British Federation of Master Printers said some years ago, in reply to an inquiry, that it favoured our entry into a European Free Trade Area. Its argument was that what's good for British industry is good for British printers —that if free trade (as then conceived, on an all-European basis) meant an expansion of British indtistry, that would lead to more print- ing. There is virtual unanimity in the trade about this, but less agreement on how well British print- ing would compete with continental countries if the tariff barriers were down. During the last wages and hours negotiations in 1959. the masters took a gloomy view, but this may have been coloured by the object of the exercise. They said that book imports from Holland were running at £500,000 per annum, three times as much as ten years before, but omitted to mention that our total exports of books are still three times the amount of imports. Other competition was said to come from France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Finland and Czechoslovakia. The British Medical Association had told the Federation that It was printing some of its food pamphlets in Holland, in runs of 250.000; and that the reason was that this was cheaper.

Under present tariff arrangements, the duty on most printed matter and stationery runs be- tween 15 and 20 per cent., but books are duty- free. One cannot escape the conclusion that if foreign competition in the British home market was going to be serious, it would have developed more by now. In most sections of printing there is a heavy trade balance in favour of exports. Only in catalogues and advertising material, where annual exports, according to the last avail- able figures. were £24 million and imports million, did foreign competition look serious. The more obvious difficulty is that because of labour shortages British printers may not be able to exploit the new opportunities for exports that freer trade should open up.