Death in The Afternoon: The story of two great London newspapers
FEBRUARY 01, 1961 by GEORGE WINDER
Mr. Winder, formerly a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand, is now farming in Sussex, England. He has written books, articles, and pamphlets on law, agriculture, and economics.
On Monday, October 17, 1960, an event occurred which stirred Fleet Street to its depth. This famous street has seen many sensations in its long history, but probably none which affected it so deeply as this; for on that day the News Chronicle, one of the country’s oldest newspapers, with a circulation of over a million copies, came to an untimely end. With it went its associated paper, The Star, with a circulation of over 700,000.
It was death in the afternoon. That day the news editor of the News Chronicle had sent out his reporters for stories as he had done all his editorial life; the foreign editor had sent his usual "service messages" to many parts of the world; in the news room the tape machines had clattered all day. Then at 5:20 p.m. they went dead, forever.
The news broke just as the majority of the staff were preparing to leave for the day, and it was soon flashed round Fleet Street. Journalists and printers congregated in pubs and did not leave until closing time. It was "Black Monday," and one of the most memorable in Fleet Street.
A great debate has continued ever since as to why these two papers, with such comparatively satisfactory circulations, and with their pages reasonably filled with advertisements, came to such an untimely end. The News Chronicle had a strong liberal (nonsocialistic) following whose loyalty nothing would shake. With the rising fortunes of the Liberal Party, the prospects of this great mouthpiece of radicalism (free markets, private property, limited government) should have been brighter than in the past. How could such a paper as this fail so dismally? Mr. Laurence Cadbury, a member of the famous chocolate manufacturing firm, whose family owned most of the shares in the two papers, came in for most of the criticism; especially for the suddenness of the demise. He explained that for some years the two papers had been losing money steadily, and that he had been offered nearly £2,000,000 for their assets by the Daily Mail. The transaction, however, had to take place without warning so that the Daily Mail might be delivered the next morning to the customers of the News Chronicle before rivals attempted to fill the vacuum. Nearly all the purchase money went to secure the pensions of former employees and to pay compensation to the dismissed staff.
The disastrous end of the News Chronicle and The Star was treated by the press and the B.B.C. as a major story, but, with a few exceptions, only oblique hints were made concerning the real cause of their demise. The reason for this reticence is quite simple: the British press is subject to censorship. Not, of course, government censorship, but censorship, nevertheless—even more effective when imposed. Those most responsible for the death of these two great papers did not want their guilt discussed, and they had the power to enforce their wish. Everyone in Fleet Street, however, knows the real cause of the disaster. To those unused to the ways of Fleet Street, the story at first may seem exaggerated, but evidence has been piling up, and there is now little room for doubt. The News Chronicle and The Star were simply done to death by the printing trade unions, and the weapons used in their destruction were restrictive practices. They died because they were forced by the trade unions to employ more than twice the number of workers their production required.
This, the real story which the great newspapers only hinted at, has not frightened one smaller paper which has given its readers the truth from the beginning. The editorial staff of this paper, the New Daily, and book publisher, Christopher Johnson, have now combined to present the whole story in a book, produced in eighteen days, and named The Murder of the News Chronicle and The Star.
One Spokesman for Freedom
The New Daily is a phenomenon so remarkable that it deserves special mention. Whereas the great Fleet Street newspapers are subjected by the trade unions to the system of the closed shop, the New Daily has exactly the opposite idea. It will not employ trade unionists at all. The trade unions are able to exercise censorship simply because the proprietors of the great newspapers dare not offend them. The unions make no overt threat; fear of their reactions is sufficient to cause editors to anticipate their wishes. But in the case of the New Daily there is simply no union to be afraid of, and so it can produce the whole story. Unfortunately, this unique newspaper has not a large circulation, although it is growing steadily and has its readers in every part of the country. The story it has revealed is startling, but well substantiated. It claims that of the 3,500 employees of the two deceased newspapers, 2,000 of them were unnecessary and were only employed because the printing unions in control of Fleet Street insisted upon it. It gives figures which show that in the case of these two papers the wages bill was approximately 45 per cent of their total costs—an excessively high proportion for any newspaper. It points out that the Guardian and the Manchester Evening News—which have rather less circulation but in every other sense are larger than the two lost London dailies—are produced, where union power is not so oppressive, with only 1,700 employees. It suggests that a staff of 1,500 workers would have been quite enough to run the two London papers. This would have enabled them to save £2,000,000 a year, whereas the largest deficit in any one year has not been more than £300,000. It claims that the unions forced this excessive staff on the News Chronicle and The Star, and that in consequence nobody did a fair day’s work. Machines had to be manned by larger crews than were required. Linotype operators were not allowed to set nearly as fast as they were able, and printing machines were not allowed to be run at full speed. Automatic tying machines were vetoed. Every job was subject to strict demarcation. For example, no one but a member of the Electrical Trade Union dared change an electric light bulb. A second man had to accompany every vehicle, even when only a small parcel was being delivered. When advertisements came in already set as complete blocks or stereos, they had to be credited to the newspaper’s setters as though done on the premises.
Restrictions Raise Costs
All these restrictive practices, declared the New Daily, more than doubled the number of workers required. Similar charges have been made quite independently by the Institute of Economic Affairs in its book, Advertising in a Free Society, published two years ago. Describing the great waste which goes on in newspaper printing works in Fleet Street, this book states: "Restrictive practices abound in the stereo department. Some men are engaged solely in putting plates on lifts. If these go to the foundry late, the whole section charges overtime though some of the men will have no work to do.
"Another union has members in the machine room pushing papers along for dispatch, one man per yard. Many of the workers are required only in short stretches, when the papers are printed and come off the machines, but they have to be paid for a full shift. It has been known for men employed at one Sunday newspaper office to sign on before going to a dog race meeting and return in time to carry out their work." Advertising in a Free Society also tells us that one firm had to employ twelve men to work one machine, whereas five men could handle it with ease.
It is such restrictive practices as these, enforced by the London printing unions, which destroyed the News Chronicle and The Star.
A Wasted Life
Perhaps no other restrictive practice is quite as dangerous as the extreme form of waste which insists that two men shall do the job of one. It means that, as far as his use to society is concerned, a man completely wastes his life. Finding a job where he was really wanted would, if he were an ordinary honest man, improve his morale and self-confidence out of all recognition. Furthermore, this doubling up of labor reduces productivity per man, and this must necessarily reduce wages and the general standard of living.
The effect of restrictive practices in the News Chronicle and The Star was not only to overburden the employer but also to deny him any opportunity of paying high wages, so that in the end it was the employees who suffered. Now, restrictive practices have robbed 3,500 workers of their jobs. The authors of Murder of the News Chronicle and The Star provide a long list of other newspapers and magazines which have succumbed during the last five years as victims, they declare, of these same disastrous practices.
Why the Silence?
One question is left to answer. Why has the Newspaper Proprietor’s Association, the wealthy organization of the London newspapers, never seriously tried to abolish those restrictions imposed by the unions which must add so much to their costs of production? And, more particularly, why do they allow the unions to impose a censorship upon them so that the real reason for the failure of a newspaper is seldom revealed?
Fear of the unions is, I suppose, the overriding reason. But the authors of the New Daily’s book suggest a reason which, they claim, existed many years ago and may possibly have effect in the present. They tell us that Lord Northcliffe, who built up a great newspaper empire, actually encouraged the unions to press for higher wages and indulge in restrictive practices. His reason for this was a rather terrible one. He himself was so financially secure that he could meet any increased costs union demands brought about, but his rivals might be unable to survive such pressures. They would be driven out of business, and then he could buy them cheaply.
This is a charge which cannot be proved; but there can be no doubt that the excessive costs of production on Fleet Street are at the present moment destroying the marginal units of the newspaper world, and the number of national newspapers has been drastically reduced. The dissemination of news and opinion is steadily being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, which is a far from favorable omen for a free society.
Restrictive practices, and the trade union censorship which conceals them, not only destroy newspapers; they endanger the very basis of our liberty.
Like all monopolies, labor monopolies do not adjust easily to changing conditions. Policies, once decided, are hard to revise. The very notion of "stability" to which monopoly is usually attached and which appears to be the cornerstone of monopolistic economic policy is a risky guide of conduct, especially in unstable times. The price paid for protecting certain standards of prices, wages, or work rules may well add instability to the whole enterprise. When an employer cannot reduce costs, he may have to close down altogether, or at least dismiss a large part of his labor force. When this happens to many employers at the same time, the result is Mass Unemployment And Depression.
Leo Wolman, Industry-Wide Bargaining