October 29 2009

Sell out?

A reader has e-mailed to say that the problem of local media monopolies; identified in last week's column, (Over a barrel) was ". . . aided, no-doubt, by people selling small, independent, family-run newspapers to huge faceless corporations for large amounts of money (and then spending all their time moaning about them).
I hope it is not paranoia that leads me to believe that this might be a dig at our decision to sell the Mercury to the Western Telegraph's owners Newscom Ltd.
While Newscom Ltd paid us a sizable sum, it was not "large" by any stretch of the imagination, which is why I have to drink the £3.99 Chilean rather than the fine clarets that are more suited to my palate, and why we drive round in a six-year old Chevrolet Tacuma rather than the top-of -the-range BMW that Grumpette thinks befits a lady of her standing.
However, my correspondent has a point: had we not sold the Mercury, the WT would not be the all-powerful local monopoly that it is today.
Indeed, it is a decision I regret every Wednesday morning as I search, usually in vain, for news in the WT, though the feeling soon wears of when I consider that I won't have to be in the office next Sunday morning ringing round my contacts in the football and rugby fraternity for the previous day's results and scorers.
Thus I will be spared the type of conversation I once had with a football club coach.
Me: "What was the score"?
Coach: "We lost five - nil."
Me: "Tell me a bit about the game."
Coach: "Well, we had most of the play but their goalie pulled off a string of stunning saves and we hit the woodwork three times. All their goals had an element of luck about them - two of them were clearly offside - the ref was rubbish. Six or seven - three to us would have been a fairer reflection of the game."
No wonder I got a phone call from the winners, Angle, accusing me of one-sided reporting.
He was right of course, but we didn't sell any papers in Angle.
Things really got tricky when the match involved two teams from our core circulation area.
Then, after ringing both coaches, you had the task of melding the two conflicting stories into a single report.
Enough to drive a man to drink - and it frequently did.
But I digress.
The decision to sell the Mercury was only partly motivated by the money, though I should say it was worth a lot more to the Western Telegraph/Newscom than it was to us.
This might seem rather strange given that, the last time I looked, the paper's circulation had dropped to 5,000 compared to the 8,000+, and rising, when we were in charge.
But it wasn't the money to be made from the Mercury that was the attraction - it was the money it was costing the WT, in reduced advertising rates and extra news coverage, to compete.
In short, Newscom bought the Mercury in order to restore its monopoly position.
And I would remind readers of Wales biggest-selling weekly newspaper's efforts to drive us out of business.
Its first move was to launch a free sheet - the Milford Messenger - which offered dirt cheap advertising to businesses in Milford Haven.
And dirt became the operative word after a Mercury reader wrote in to tell us she found the Messenger very handy for cleaning up after he semi-house-trained puppy and I rebranded the free sheet "The Messy"
These efforts to kill us off were backed up by frequent visits to the Milford by the WT's battle bus which distributed free crisps, balloons and biscuits to anyone who bought a Western Telegraph.
Or, was it the other way round?
When that proved a resounding flop, Newscom paid £65,000 for the bare title of the West Wales Guardian which had gone bust.
This was relaunched with an emphasis on Milford Haven.
After a bit of a struggle, we also saw that off.
In one of my early Old Grumpy columns I imagined the WT's staff assembled in the editor's office to sing the company song before starting work.
As I recall, it went:

Oh Telegraph, we vow to thee,
To preserve thy monopoly.

Oh Telegraph we vow to thee,
To keep thee competition free.
(Sung to the tune of The Red Flag).

Hardy John Donne, I admit, but it caused quit a bit of amusement among our readers and, even more rewarding, a good deal of outraged spluttering in Merlins Bridge.
Then one day we received a phone call from Newscom's head sharang in Wales.
He was going to be in Pembrokeshire next week and would we mind if he called in for a chat.
Buying the Mercury was never mentioned, but Grumpette's feminine intuition told her the score.
So, when he called, I told him we would be interested in taking the WT off his hands with a view to breathing some life into its pages.
That terminated the pussy-footing, and the cheque book was waved.
Naturally, we were reluctant to hand our baby over to the wicked stepmother but, in addition to the substantial amount of moolah on offer, there were other things to consider.
1. We were all convinced that the Internet would do for local newspapers. It has taken rather longer than we expected but it is now happening all the same.
2. We always feared that it might occur to somebody in Merlins Bridge that the way to counter the Mercury's threat was to send out reporters to unearth real stories rather than feeding their readers on a diet of regurgitated press releases. Amazingly, this penny still hasn't dropped, though I suppose it doesn't matter that much if you have a monopoly.
3. I was close to my sixtieth birthday and it seemed like a good opportunity to get out while we were in front.
4. The WT's then owners, Newscom Ltd, unlike the present owners, Newsquest Ltd, was not a "large faceless corporation"
Indeed the rules for newspaper takeovers meant that there were very few groups that could buy the Mercury without triggering a Monopolies Commission enquiry.
Those rules provided that any takeover by a group with a total circulation of over 500,000 must be referred to the Monopolies Commission.
At the time Newscom's total circulation was 475,000, so any other acquisition it made was likely to push it over the threshold.
We were, therefore, in something of a now or never situation.
And we opted for the now.


Electoral fraud?


Colin Copus, professor of local politics at De Montfort University (where that? ), considers the role of Independent councillors in local government in the current issue of first, a weekly glossy put out by the Local Government Association.
Prof Copus sings the praises of the Independent councillor as the antidote to party politics in local government which he says leads to "... the adoption of a highly disciplined approach to council politics, with much of what takes place in public being pre-rehearsed in private group meetings. what the public observes is not genuine discourse on important local issues, rather it is a stilted, theatrical and often overly confrontational political performance."
Maybe they do things differently in Leicester (home of De Montfort Uni, since you asked) but here in Pembrokeshire the county council's ruling Independent Political Group has all the bad habits of a political party which the professor condemns - private meetings to decide the party line, use of its control of chairs, and the substantial special responsibility allowances that go with them, to maintain party discipline and loyalty.
The professor argues that even if you vote for a candidate from one of the main political parties, you don't necessarily know what you are getting. But at least the political parties campaign on a manifesto. Here in Pembrokeshire, if you vote for a so-called Independent, you certainly don't know what you are getting. The majority of non-party candidates who stood last year called themselves independents, but once elected, joined the Independent Political Group.
You certainly won't find their membership of the IPG, actual or prospective, mentioned in their election literature.
Indeed, in some cases they are at pains to stress that, if elected, they will be truly independent (see Party animals) - a species of electoral fraud if you ask me.
Not that such perfidy goes unrewarded.
Cllr Anne Hughes' action in joining the IPG, despite her clear promise to the electorate that she wouldn't do so (see Party animals), has landed her the plum job of chairman of the council - chauffeur-driven limo, ten grand a year and portrait on the wall at county hall, and it is rumoured that the non-political, political party is lining up ultra-loyalist Cllr Jim "I am not a member of any party or group" Codd as the next incumbent but one.
If Prof Copus should take his hols in Pembrokeshire he would find it instructive to forsake the beach one Thursday morning to observe a council meeting where he could hardly fail to notice the synchronised voting of the IPG. Were he to call at County Hall the day before, he won't find any Indies in the tea room. They'll be closeted together in their secret group meeting getting their instructions on how to vote at the following day's meeting.


Gravy training

A recent report claimed that the key ingredient of good gravy was soy sauce.
Not when any two or three generations our family gather together for a meal when the unanimous view is that it is not fancy spices or granules that a gravy make, but a granny.
The hand that stirs the gravy rules the roost (roast, surely? Ed).
So it was heartening to see my 11-year old granddaughter being inculcated into the tradition the last time we had a meal together.
Though it was not clear to me why stirring it in a clockwise direction, as Grumpette insisted, should make the slightest difference.
At times like this it is good policy to keep your own counsel.
After all, you should never rule out the possibility that some things are beyond your understanding.

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