My Biggest Mistake

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The Independent Online
Michael Mander, 57, was a director of Times Newspapers for 10 years before he took over the running of the Thomson magazine, directories, information and

exhibition business in the UK, Europe, Australia and South Africa in the 1980s.

He is a director of Thomson Directories and Southnews, a publisher of regional newspapers; chairman of MAID Systems, an on-line data service; and a director of Hill Samuel, the merchant bank, where he leads a team advising clients in the media sector. He is to become chairman of the Institute of Directors next month.

MY former colleague, Lord Rees-Mogg, has already told of his biggest mistake - when, as editor of the Times, he agreed to the shutdown of the newspaper in 1978, without having what he called 'a Wapping-type solution' in sight.

As the then deputy chief executive of Times Newspapers, I was asked halfway through that year-long shutdown to find alternative printing arrangements outside the UK. My biggest mistake was in concentrating on the technical and practical problems involved in printing abroad and not paying sufficient attention to the political environment where we eventually chose to go.

After numerous secret excursions to the United States and the Continent, three alternative printing centres emerged: Frankfurt, Miami, or a country site in Virginia. Each had the technical capability, the capacity and the will to do the job - at a cost that the project could cover.

It was eventually decided that Frankfurt was the preferred choice. First, because less travelling time was involved for staff who had agreed to help get out what was planned as an international edition of The Times. We were also influenced by the fact that the printworkers at the Frankfurt subsidiary of Tercuman, the Istanbul daily, were mostly members of a print union, unlike those in the US plants, so the move would be considered 'less provocative'.

Inevitably, the secret location was discovered and a UK print union sent out an executive member to seek help from German counterparts in blocking the printing of the paper. That mission was unsuccessful, but what I didn't know was that the Frankfurt region was then a hotbed of heavy-handed revolutionary organisations, which would embrace the chance to disrupt the printing of a capitalist newspaper being produced against the wishes of UK print unions.

More than a hundred menacing pickets gathered as the print run was being prepared. Immediately before printing was due to begin, an attempt was made to blow up the plant. Several days later, the plant-owner's car was machine-gunned on the way to the office (he was unhurt).

We did manage to print 10,000 copies of the paper on the first day, but the local police chief told us that, while he might be able to mobilise 500 policemen, the pickets could grow to 1,000 - or even 10,000 on the following May Day weekend - and that 'there would be a big fight, and it would be bloody'.

We decided it would be wrong to put any lives at risk for the sake of further issues of the Times, and Frankfurt was abandoned as a printing centre.

What we should have done in the first place or even later was to print in Miami or Virginia. If we had gone to either, there would have been no likelihood of bloody confrontations. And although the freight and travel costs would have been higher, they would have been offset by lower printing costs.

What the unhappy episode taught me is that you must look at a problem in the round and at the whole environment - not just at the logistics.

In retrospect, given the intelligence resources available to the Times, it was perhaps an extraordinary mistake to have made.

(Photograph omitted)

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