Regional press: Making the anti-consolidation argument

So far, arguments about further consolidation among the regional press have been conducted at a fairly rarified level.

There’s been an argument about business models. Some analysts are concerned that consolidation will mean more brutish one-off job cuts. Sly Bailey is trying to reassure them that ‘working smarter’with a new ‘editorial model’is part of the plan.

Then there’s the anti-trust angle. Will boiling down the Big Four into a Big Two result in a bad deal for advertisers? We’ll get to see what the Office For Fair Trading thinks about that soon enough.

I happen to think that the government will approve further consolidation. It’s a pain-free, subsidy-free way for a weakened government to assist an industry that hasn’t been particularly adroit in lobbying on its own behalf.

But for the would-be consolidators, there’s a risk that the anti-consolidation argument starts to gain momentum. The broader the debate becomes, the less attractive consolidation will appear. This could happen quite rapidly.

Back in February, the first glimmers of momentum became visible when Peter Lazenby, a Leeds-based NUJ official, called Johnston Press the “newspaper equivalent of HBOS and Northern Rock”.

This struck me at the time as a smart piece of positioning. As Lazenby said:

“This company is a financial mess not of our making – it’s the newspaper equivalent of HBOS and Northern Rock.

“The debt now amounts to 10 times its share value and the people responsible for this mess have received fat bonuses and the chief executive is retiring with a pension most working people would die for.

“They are telling us we have to pay the price for this mismanagement by sacrificing our jobs.”

Sensibly, the NUJ is extending Lazenby’s parallel.

Yesterday, the NUJ’s James Doherty told MPs that ‘light-touch regulation’had ‘failed in the banking sector. . . and failed in the media, too.”

He added: ‘The Newspaper Society are asking for an even lighter touch, which will result in even fewer jobs, and more news factories producing titles 80 or 100 miles away.”

Differences between lobbyists who theoretically share the aim of saving their industry? Parallels with bust banks? This is where things get interesting politically.

I feel a Select Committee hearing coming on, with Sly Bailey and John Fry lined up to reprise the roles of those bankers who so memorably hung their heads in regret before the Treasury Committee back in February. Michael Pelosi of Northcliffe Media could sit alongside them fielding awkward questions about Viscount Rothermere’s commitment to the regional press.

And if MPs really felt the need to hear the magic s-word spoken again, they could request the presence of two men who personify the debt-fuelled decade: Tim Bowdler and Roger Parry, the former chief executive and chairman of Johnston Press.

What a swell party it would be. . .

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