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Business matters

The business pages in many regional newspapers are a pale imitation of what they once were; poorly resourced and consequently not much read. Jon Griffin argues that business impacts our daily lives much more than most of what now passes for news, and merits a comeback.

By Jon Griffin

Business matters
“A classic example of how newspapers can make a difference.”

Exactly twenty years ago – on April 1, 2000 to be precise – I was among around 50,000 people who took to the streets of Birmingham in the biggest public protest seen in the city for decades.

The thousands of banner-waving protesters who marched from the city centre up to Cannon Hill Park near Edgbaston Cricket Ground were united in one aim – to save Rover’s Longbridge car factory and its 8,000-strong workforce from the clutches of private equity group Alchemy Partners.

In mid-March 2000, BMW had stunned the West Midlands by announcing that it was selling Longbridge, which was losing a mind-boggling £2 million a day, to Jon Moulton’s Alchemy group. Moulton had promised a new slimmed-down specialist MG car factory at Longbridge, cutting 5,000 jobs at a stroke.

The threatened end of Longbridge as a volume car manufacturer was the biggest industrial story in the West Midlands for many years, and the march on April Fool’s Day in 2000 – how apposite that date was to prove – undoubtedly concentrated the minds of workers, management, politicians, the media and anybody with an interest in the future of the best known factory in Birmingham.

As business editor of the then Birmingham Evening Mail, I wrote in the Mail that night: “Longbridge must not be left to wither on the vine and reduced to the status of a small sports car manufacturer or the fabric of a region once known as the workshop of the world will be irreparably damaged.”

In fact, that is precisely what transpired. Five years later, in April 2005, Longbridge closed as a volume manufacturer when MG Rover – by then owned by John Towers’ infamous Phoenix Venture Holdings – collapsed under the weight of debts of more than £1 billion.

So, had the 50,000 marchers wasted their April Fool’s Day Saturday five years previously, waving their banners and sending out an unequivocal ‘Save Rover’ message to the world at large? No, because the march was to prove crucial in converting popular support into political backing from the Blair government in favour of the Phoenix consortium.

Mr Moulton’s Alchemy Partners – widely seen as asset-strippers – found themselves out in the cold and the Phoenix takeover was sealed. That takeover sustained thousands of relatively well-paid jobs for five years, regardless of the sad eventual outcome.

Today, almost unbelievably, one journalist covers business and industry full-time in Birmingham, for both the Mail and the Post.

Making a difference

Twenty years later, I still think that the April 1 march was the turning point in the Save Rover campaign. It was the clearest manifestation of the opposition to the private equity bid, the most concentrated public demonstration of support to save Longbridge as a mass employer.

The march was effectively masterminded by the great Ian Dowell, then editor of the Birmingham Evening Mail and head of news and InPublishing contributor Steve Dyson in conjunction with the likes of Tony Woodley, national TGWU car industry negotiator, Birmingham’s best-known historian Carl Chinn and other well-known public figures.

Ian, who was to retire a year later following a highly distinguished 15-year stint at the helm of the multi-edition big city evening, pulled the strings in the newsroom to help deliver Longbridge into the hands of the Phoenix Four. It was hardly his fault that it all went pear-shaped five years later, but that’s another story.

The Longbridge crisis was the biggest story of my seventeen and a half-year career as Mail business editor, and the single biggest example of a successful newspaper campaign over that period. I will always be proud to have played a part in that campaign, and indeed to have marched along with our Evening Mail banner – exhorted throughout by chief banner-waver Mr Dowell – amongst the 50,000 on the day.

On that wet spring day twenty years ago, the Evening Mail made a difference. It had crystallised public feeling, it had provided a vital forum for debate over the future of a mass city employer, it delivered the oxygen of publicity to the many thousands fighting to save Longbridge.

And I would argue that it succeeded, quite simply, because its aim was clear, to save a factory which provided livelihoods for 8,000 workers and many thousands more in the supply chain, from component makers to sandwich shops and cafes.

Longbridge touched the lives of tens of thousands of people. It mattered – and the Mail was a proud cheer-leader in 2000, even though the cheers were to turn to jeers five years later. Not that we knew that at the time.

Two decades later – with the factory now effectively a marketing and design operation employing a handful of workers under the control of Chinese-owned MG UK – it’s still a classic example of how newspapers can make a difference. Save Rover may not have been Watergate or the Sunday Times’ thalidomide campaign but its outcome resonated far beyond the boundaries of the famous old factory for years afterwards.

Back then, print – always more permanent than TV and radio – was the ideal medium for a successful media campaign. Today, who really knows? The whole media landscape has been transformed beyond recognition, largely thanks to the internet. Anybody with a grievance or a cause, however relevant, to publicise can take to Facebook, Twitter or any of the social media soapboxes to shout from the cyberspace rooftops. Whether anybody is listening is another matter.

But people were listening – and reading – in droves back in April 2000. The Longbridge campaign was proof beyond any doubt that business journalism need not be as dry and dusty as the corporate balance sheet figures on which so much coverage had once concentrated. There could be more to life on the business pages than Tesco’s half-year results or Marks and Spencer’s Christmas trading figures.

Never has business coverage been more needed, in print or online.

What’s important now?

I would argue that that still holds true today. In a post-industrial world where steel mills, mines, shipbuilding yards and other centres of metal-bashing have been cast to the winds – along with tens of thousands of workers – unprecedented change in the workplace remains constant. It affects us all, from the near ubiquitous onset of home-working to the effects of the likes of Amazon on the high street, or the increased sophistication of consumers in the world of personal finance.

If you compare with how little our lives in reality are affected by what I would call the big stories – whether the soap opera of the Trump presidency, the Harry and Meghan circus or even, God forbid, Brexit – with the subtle, often as yet unknown, ripple effects of the business world, the difference is stark.

It will not make a blind bit of difference to millions of us if Harry and Meghan choose to live in Canada, the UK or even the Arctic Circle. But the moves to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will affect us all, even non-drivers whose buses and trains will be swamped by new commuters in due course.

Whilst it’s true that Trump and a post-Brexit world may have an effect on the fortunes of the FTSE 100 – with implications for our pension funds – temporary rises and falls in share prices will pale by comparison with the increased use of artificial intelligence and its impact on the workplace in coming years.

Can the high street survive the onslaught of online shopping? Will manufacturing shrink further as a proportion of GDP, as the likes of India and China continue to flex their muscles? Closer to home, how will the Silicon Valley tech giants respond to calls for regulation, as their near monopolies lay waste to our own cherished publishing industry, with all the implications for a fully functioning democracy?

Those subjects, and more, should be exercising the minds of editors and newsdesks faced with ensuring that today’s business coverage reflects the modern world. But I suspect it is not quite as simple as that for today’s business journalists.

Access to the key figures in industry is today much more strictly controlled.

Message control

Quite apart from the unremitting extra pressures created by the chase for clicks, and therefore advertising revenue, in today’s much diminished newsrooms, access to the key figures in industry is today much more strictly controlled.

During my spell on the Mail business desk, the best stories always came from union officials or tips from the shopfloor. A couple of pints with the local man from the TGWU or the CWU every few weeks could pay huge dividends, and there was well-earned trust on both sides.

But as time wore on – in common with much of the rest of life – the unions became more corporate, with London-centric press officers dictating coverage, usually via bland press releases. It became much harder to root out genuine exclusives as full-time union officials were increasingly sidelined by PR-style spin doctors. Some of the older guys were still willing to chew the fat, but they were increasingly in a minority.

And as it became more difficult to prise out the stories which would make a front-page splash – or even attract clicks online – the business desks themselves were facing their own existential struggles.

At the time of the Longbridge crisis in 2000, I was one of a two-man team on the Birmingham Evening Mail business desk, with the stalwart Chris Morley, now of the NUJ, as industrial correspondent.

On the morning broadsheet Birmingham Post, which was primarily a dedicated business newspaper, there was a team of six or seven in Birmingham, with a City office in London employing two or three others.

Today, almost unbelievably, one journalist covers business and industry full-time in Birmingham, for both the Mail and the Post. He may be helped by other staffers, but there is no dedicated business editor, no industrial correspondent on either title. The Post is now a weekly ‘compact’ newspaper, with an eclectic mix of coverage. The ‘FT of the Midlands’ is no more.

And yet, as I have tried to argue, never has business coverage been more needed, in print or online. The workplace is central to millions of people’s lives, and increasingly omnipresent technology has intensified that ever-evolving equation between the boss and the old shopfloor.

If BMW were trying to sell off Longbridge today to a so-called asset-stripper, the inevitable outrage from cyberworld would provide a 24-hour running commentary alongside the more traditional news outlets struggling to keep pace with the sheer speed and volume of all the white noise.

But that often hysterical commentary cannot compete with the specialised knowledge and the sheer journalistic nous that drove ex Mail-editor Ian Dowell to help save Longbridge twenty years ago. All publishers should take note – because these are uncertain times and there may be another Longbridge around the corner near you soon.

There could be more to life on the business pages than Tesco’s half-year results or Marks and Spencer’s Christmas trading figures.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.