The proprietor of one of our great newspapers once told me: "I don't want to sound smug, but I think we've got a fairly contented workforce here." Half-a-dozen years on, smug is not prominent among the adjectives employed in the many descriptions one hears and reads of Lord Black of Crossharbour. Cunning, yes. Calculated, certainly. But even the once "fairly contented" workforce, having called off planned industrial action in case the entire Telegraph edifice comes crashing down around its ears, have yet to accuse their former chairman of smugness.
Contented isn't a word heard echoing along the corridors at the group's Canary Wharf offices, either. The strains of "Stormy Weather" more like, as those producing the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs whistle in the dark that has descended like a freshly honed guillotine with the blocking of Lord Black's "done deal" with the Barclay Brothers.
The decision by the Chancery Court in Wilmington, Delaware, that Lord Black acted "in a cunning and calculated way" when attempting to sell his controlling Hollinger International shares to the Barclays has thrown into fresh confusion a publishing soap opera that is absolutely enthralling - unless you happen to be one of those reeling from frying pan to fire and back again as the plot unfolds.
The editorial ranks at the papers, and those at The Spectator, had come to accept that the Barclays would gain control and were not too unhappy at the prospect - "as long as Andrew Neil doesn't come as part of the deal," a senior Daily Telegraph executive told me. They were, however, unhappy about the 3 per cent pay increase they were offered and 83 per cent of National Union of Journalists members at the group voted in favour of strike action from today unless it was increased to 8 per cent.
Martin Newland, who after settling into the editor's chair had barely time to sharpen his pencil before being enveloped in crisis, promised to raise with new owners the "serious problem of morale" at the papers. The torpedoing of the Barclays' deal means raising morale may now be equated with the raising of the Titanic.
So who now will take over the ailing papers? The smart money says that the Barclays will regroup and come up with another bid that will win the day. Except, that is, that money nestling in Kensington, where confident smiles greeted the wails of anguish at Canary Wharf when what remained of Conrad's reputation was shredded in Delaware. Associated is back in the game and the word from Derry Street is that the company would continue to run the Telegraph titles as up-market broadsheets. To quote a senior manager there, the idea that the Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre and a team of journalistic hotshots would be parachuted in to "Mail-ise" the papers is "absolute bollocks".
In the long run, journalism might be best served, competition rules allowing, by Associated gaining control. Whatever its faults, no one has ever accused the group of skimping on editorial investment. Those Telegraph staffers anxious to jump into the Barclays' arms should note that on the day their deal with Black hit the buffers, ShopDirect, the mail-order catalogue business bought by the twins less than two months ago, announced it was closing down a warehouse in Leeds and that more than 800 workers would lose their jobs.
Lord Black and the late Robert Maxwell notwithstanding, history shows that titles controlled by proprietors with a love of newspapers, rather than public companies constantly scampering like small dogs to lick the hands of their shareholders, do best.
If proof is required, just look at another soap opera running at Canary Wharf. Trinity Mirror's papers have shed circulation alarmingly and the flagship looks unlikely to haul its way back above the two million mark. But the company has announced an 11 per cent increase in pre-tax profits.
So the chief executive Sly Bailey has increased the cover price by 3p to 35p, giving The Sun a 5p advantage, and indicated that more job losses might be necessary. As a proprietorial figure with a love of newspapers, Ms Bailey is a first-rate abacus.
Shareholders are delighted. The City is impressed. Journalists must feel like flinging themselves from the top of Canary Wharf tower.
Way back then Conrad Black told me he saw himself as an "unlicensed psychiatrist" when dealing with journalists. Things being how they are, he could make a fortune back here if he could get a licence.
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