The national newspaper industry must be asking itself at what point disarray turns into full-scale anarchy. The Newspaper Publishers Association, the representative body of national newspapers, is looking shaky after the Mirror Group resigned, ditto the Audit Bureau of Circulations following threats of resignation from The Times and Associated Newspapers, and the National Readership Survey has been forced to rerun a trial segmentation of market data after complaints from the NPA.
Add to this the muscle being used by big newspaper groups to squeeze advertisers – some of the largest advertisers in newspapers have pulled their business or reached an impasse on rate negotiations – and you realise just how near to breakdown the facilitating engines of the newspaper industry are.
Dixons Store Group, one of the largest in the business, has not advertised in The Sun, The Times, the News of the World or The Sunday Times for over a week. Peugeot-CitroÃ« ads have not been carried by the two broadsheet titles for a month.
What lies behind all these problems are the strong-arm tactics being used by all the newspaper groups.
Of course this is not in itself new. The newspaper industry has always played a dangerous game of brinkmanship. Two years ago it was the Mirror Group playing bully-boy when it threatened to pull out of the Press Association and use UK News instead. When PA dropped its prices in reaction, the Mirror Group revoked its threat.
This time the aggressor is Murdoch’s News International. David Montgomery, chief executive of MGN, has all but admitted that it was the strength of News International within the NPA which prompted the Mirror Group to pull out. It is understood that Mirror Group deputy managing director Roger Eastoe was particularly incensed by NI’s power within the organisation, although Eastoe denies this: “I’m not singling out any member of the NPA, it was the backstabbing of all members of the club that we objected to,” he says.
In a recent speech Montgomery said: “The bickering among the national newspaper publishers in recent years has all the characteristics of a great empire in decline or even the last days of a Tory Government.”
He went further to implicitly accuse NI of undermining the NPA: “They (the publishers) failed to exercise discipline over some of their members who introduced predatory pricing.”
A spokeswoman denies point blank the accusation of predatory pricing. She says that NI has twice been accused of predatory pricing and referred to the Office of Fair Trading, and twice the case, brought by The Telegraph and The Independent respectively, has been thrown out. “Predatory pricing is illegal,” she says.
But Montgomery’s comments raise the question of whether NI has flexed its muscle once too often. The current round of threats to pull out of the ABC and appoint independent auditors was sparked by NI’s refusal to accept the ABC’s decision to publish discounted Telegraph circulation data. And if the ABC goes, media buyers will be left without any comparable data to assess circulation of various titles. Likewise the NRS.
Again, NI disputes it has bullied the ABC. The spokeswoman says: “The first time anyone raises their head in this industry they are branded bullies. The dispute is about clarity. To accuse us of bullying is ludicrous. All we have asked for is a commonsense explanation of the rules.”
It seems that The Times has won. Just before the case against the ABC was due to go to court, The Telegraph has postponed its action for breach of contract.
But if the likes of Murdoch and Montgomery continue to war openly, they risk impoverishing the industry as a whole.
Telegraph marketing director Hugo Drayton says: “I agree that the bickering and back-stabbing and general lack of agreement is bad for the industry as a whole. My main concern is that it will end up being seen as a bit of a playground.”
Some media buyers believe that if the NPA were ditched, it would be no loss to the industry. CDP media director Peter Thomson says: “If the NPA folded tomorrow the press buyers would not be affected one iota.” He says that a straw poll in his office showed that junior staff had not heard of the NPA and senior staff did not know what the organisation does.
However, Express Newspapers group advertising director Andy Jonesco argues that the NPA is worth fighting for. He says: “Certain aspects of the NPA are very useful. It provides us with recognition, which is necessary.”
The radio industry has managed to foster a harmonious industry image – members of the Radio Advertising Bureau from rival stations pool resources to promote radio in a generic fashion. Newspapers should be no different.