Signs of the ‘Times’

Peter Jenkins

  • Stop Press by Eric Jacobs
    Deutsch, 166 pp, £6.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 233 97286 2

We live in a society which has learnt to take trade-unionism for granted. We extend to it the kind of tolerance which we give to the Churches in the name of religious freedom, even when the priesthood has grown corrupt and the ritual debased. We are all trade-unionists now. We speak the language of trade-unionism; our manners are trade-union manners. We are scarcely able to blink when hospital consultants engage in what they please to call ‘industrial action’, as if that euphemism were sufficient to justify the extortions of their professional power. Middle-class professionals – bank managers, for example – hire trade-union mercenaries – Mr Clive Jenkins, for example – in the same way as they hire tax accountants. Trade-unionism is an approved form of behaviour: group venality, providing it is called trade-unionism, is therefore permissible. We do try to draw a line where life and death is involved, but the hypocrisies involved in ‘industrial action’ by hospital staffs, ambulance men and the like are cloaked in a vocabulary of brotherhood and solidarity drawn from a more heroic age. We try to draw another line, or some of us are inclined to, where creative activity is involved. It is in itself shocking that we are likely to be more shocked if a concert or play is prevented than if an entire motor-car factory is stopped. We understand well enough when a miner stops mining, but less well when an electrician pulls the plug on a film unit or a scene-shifter won’t shift. These, perhaps, are the last bastions of our resistance to the trade-union ethic.

Newspapers are a borderline case. They are neither art nor a matter of life or death. The newspaper industry is plainly an industry, with clanking machinery and a product, and trade-unionism has a long history in this quarter. Yet until quite recently newspaper workers rarely went on strike, and not only because they were handsomely bought off by indulgent and piratical employers; still less were they accustomed to sabotage production by, for example, tossing scraps of metal into the presses so as to break the paper. People who write for newspapers and the people who try to manage and market them find this kind of behaviour difficult to account for: they are bewildered that immensely highly-paid workers are so alienated from the common enterprise, apparently sharing little or none of their satisfaction at getting a good paper onto the streets. To be sure, Fleet Street trade-unionism is an extreme case, closer in some respects to the criminal rackets of the East End of London than to bona-fide trade-unionism as approved by the TUC. Nevertheless, the impending demise of the Times is a disconcerting event – more so than would be the final collapse of, say, British Leyland. What can it mean? Is this some warning satire or parable? England without the Times! Can the temple of the Establishment survive the crumbling of its pillar?

There may have been a tendency, as Eric Jacobs suggests in his chronicle of the 11-month shut-down which brought about the present disaster, for the boardroom protagonists to regard the affair in the light of one of Mr William Rees-Mogg’s editorials. However, we should be careful about regarding the fall of the Times in this fashion, or as a paradigm of the state of Britain. The national newspaper industry has many exceptional features. It is the last remaining manufacturing industry to be located in the heart of London. Long vehicles laden with outsize toilet rolls back down 18th-century alleys; old buildings shake with the rattle of ancient machinery, and only the absence of steam suggests that the 20th century has come to pass. This industry is mostly concentrated in the no-man’s-land on the western fringes of the City which marks the old class dividing-line between East and West London. Fleet Street’s work-force is drawn predominantly from the East End, where ‘the print’ remains predominantly an hereditary trade (closed to women), with a casual tradition similar to that which so long persisted in the other great industry of East London, the docks. Earnings in ‘the print’ are prodigious. The average is put at over £200 a week, and a good few compositors have annual earnings in the £20 to £25,000-a-year range. Yet there are few visible signs of embourgeoisement. Print workers proverbially own cabs or greengroceries, and there is said to be a man at the Sunday Times who runs an executive airline in his ample spare time: yet they do their drinking in the grottiest of pubs and eat fried food in steamy caffes as if untouched by their remarkable affluence.

Fleet Street is particularly vulnerable to industrial disruption. Production takes place against the clock with trains to catch, and whereas a car not made today can be made tomorrow, an undelivered newspaper is without value. On the one side, there is a predatory tradition of casual work, and on the other side a tradition of employer profligacy. The old press lords are a dead breed, but many newspapers are today owned by oil-rich conglomerates (with North Sea licences to print newspapers) who seem a no less fair touch. Newspaper printing is insulated from foreign competition and in the hands of a trade-union monopoly. Jacobs correctly starts with Caxton in his account of the development of printing trade-unionism. He is able to identify a characteristic restrictive practice in the year 1587 and to trace the compositors’ piece-work scales back to an agreement of 1785.

The craft unions – the National Graphical Association (NGA) and the Society of Lithographic Artists and Designers (SLADE) – exercise their power through a total control over entry to the trade. They are in charge of the supply of labour; they are in all but name the employer who contracts skilled labour to the publishers of newspapers. They have managed to preserve their craft integrity, the source of their monopoly power, in the face of technological change. For example, when the linotype machine came in in 1889, the compositors, who had hitherto set type by hand or tweezer, managed to extend their monopoly to the operation of the machines. When in 1894 it was agreed that display advertisements could be set in specialised houses, it was agreed that compositors in the newspaper houses should be paid as if they had set them. The non-craft, or general, trade unions exercise their power in a different way. Whereas the craft unions are tightly-controlled and centralised, the power of the non-craft unions is founded on their chapels, or office branches. Jacobs records that there were no fewer than 65 chapels at the Grays Inn Road headquarters of Times Newspapers in 1978 – 65 chapels for some 4,250 employees. Chapel power is wielded through a system of permanent pricing or running negotiation. Each and every change in working practice, however trivial, is liable to be made the excuse for a renegotiation of rates or conditions; collective bargaining becomes a bazaar-like haggle. Two traditions, and two cultures, converge in Fleet Street trade-unionism: ancient craft custom and practice and East London extortion and racketeering.

The most fascinating chapters of Stop Press are the earlier ones in which the author takes us behind the scenes of the newspaper industry and on an introductory trip into the impenetrable sub-culture of the print. More of this might have been in order, because the blow-by-blow chronicle of the fatal shut-down has an inevitability about it which sometimes makes for less than gripping reading. In 1978, the Times Newspapers management set out to regain its lost managerial prerogatives. Jacobs gives us some idea of the extent to which the unions, or rather the chapels, had taken over. By 1978, Grays Inn Road housed ‘an extraordinary number of people working full-time as shop-stewards with their own offices and telephones and sometimes a secretary too, all paid for by the company’. It was the unions who ‘hired people, allocated work, determined shifts and holidays, and even totted up their earnings at the end of the week’. Management was, in part, itself to blame for this state of affairs. The marriage between the Times and Sunday Times had turned out an unhappy match; the move of the Times from Printing House Square to the Grays Inn Road had aggravated matters and led to disorderly union leap-frogging; in order to print the Sunday Times, with its much larger run, casual workers made up the bulk of the Saturday-night shift and they had small loyalty to the company; the management was divided within itself, the Thompson Organisation rich and remote.

As an employee of the Sunday Times, Jacobs is in some difficulty as the quasi-official chronicler of the Times close-down, and his account of it does not live up to the standards of Sunday Times investigative reporting. However, as with the histories of the popes, we don’t have to read much between the lines to realise how disastrously the business was mismanaged.

There was no coherence of purpose from the outset. Crucially, and disastrously, it was never wholly clear whether the so-called ‘key-stroking’ issue was as central to management’s concerns as the proposals for improving efficiency and ending disruption. The ‘key-stroking’ issue was the one which threatened the very existence of the NGA. As Jacobs points out, there was nothing very new about photo-composition (although it had still not come to Fleet Street), but there was something quite revolutionary, from the NGA’s point of view, about computerised photo-composition. This meant that reporters would come back from the pub and sit down at display units, and that girls in the small-ad department would tap words onto their little television screens and – at the press of a button – a computer, and not a card-carrying printer, would translate their impulses into type. The craft monopoly would be breached; it would before long mean the end of printing as a trade. The existence of the NGA was the issue, not the 45 per cent job loss (by natural wastage) which would result from the management’s proposals. For the other unions, however, the issue was chapel power. The management’s proposals to increase efficiency meant, for example, doing something about the over-manning which enabled ghost workers signing on as ‘Mickey Mouse’ and the like to collect additional pay packets for unworked Saturday-night shifts. The proposed disputes procedure meant reasserting a somewhat paternal code of discipline against the jungle power of the shop floor. The chapels weren’t likely to take kindly to that either, but it did not have the same kind of life-or-death character which the ‘key-stroking’ issue had for the NGA.

Management misjudged the power of the printing unions. It misjudged the willingness and ability of their national leaders to co-operate at the centre. It underestimated the power of the unions to absorb their locked-out members in other Fleet Street offices, or – in the case of the craft unions – to afford to pay them ample benefit. In the end, it was Times Newspapers, losing £2 million a week through the shut-down, which became desperate to resume publication, the unions who could afford to take their time and drive a hard bargain. Management followed an initial overkill with premature concessions; above all, it made the classic error of going into an industrial battle from which it had no plan of retreat. Jacobs’s detailed account of all this makes sad reading, and reminds one of the cautionary epitaph:

Here lies the body of Farmer Day
Who died defending his right of way.
He was right, dead right, the whole way along,
But he’s just as dead as if he was wrong.

Since the Times and its sister publications returned to the streets in November 1979, its losses have grown still larger, its industrial relations no better, and the efficiency of its production seems not to have improved one bit. The Sunday Times continued to be plagued by wilful disruption in the machine room. The second Lord Thomson decided to sell. It remains to be seen whether the Times can be saved, and if so, whether its problems can be solved. Stop Press makes these lamentable subsequent developments seem inevitable. For all management’s mismanagements, it was union power and chapel power which killed the Times. According to the author, ‘the structure of union power was the only thing to emerge clearly enhanced from the Times shutdown.’ If that is right, it sounds to me like a death warrant for the Times, if not yet for Fleet Street.

Fleet Street is not typical of British industry and we should beware of drawing a generalised moral from the debacle of the Times shutdown. We should be clear, nevertheless, about its nature. The destruction of the Times by the unions is no aberration, not a case-study in unenlightened self-interest, not at all: the NGA behaved perfectly rationally in putting its craft future above the survival of the Times; the chapels behaved equally rationally in clinging to their power and upholding their highly lucrative restrictive practices. The casual workers who benefit from the rackets in the Sunday Times machine room were right, from their own point of view, to mine that Klondyke for as long as it might last. The hereditary members of the aristocracy called ‘the print’ had no reason to abandon their tithes or surrender their position for the sake of one newspaper. Trade-union bureaucracies, local as well as national, have good reasons for defending their power and privileges even at the expense of their members’ interests, and certainly over and above the interests of any newspaper. We find the destruction of the Times a shocking affair because we regard a newspaper as being something more than a commercial product and associate it with the leading of a civilised life. Moreover, we are brought up to regard the Times as a peculiarly august and venerable institution, a part of England itself. Yet the people who have brought the Times to the verge of destruction are not politically-motivated wreckers, but men with substantial interests at stake who are behaving in a way which we would find unremarkable were they commodity dealers cornering markets, barristers or architects upholding the restrictive practices of their professions, or civil servants defending the privileges of their caste. In that sense, the fall of the Times is an authentic British tragedy.