Obituaries: Bruce Matthews

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The Independent Online
The court of Rupert Murdoch is much like the court of Henry VIII. Men and women are promoted to positions of great power only to be felled on the royal whim, either because they cease to be useful or because they threaten to gain more fame than the monarch himself.

Bruce Matthews was Murdoch's Thomas Cromwell. As Henry had Cromwell executed after doing his dirty work on the monasteries, so Matthews fell from grace only months after engineering the supreme coup of Murdoch's career, the move of his papers to Wapping to escape the stranglehold of the print unions. The irony was that, having masterminded the most ruthless stratagem in modern industrial history, he was not tough enough to survive in the harsh environment he helped to create.

Matthews was an Australian, like many of Murdoch's most trusted lieutenants. An expert in printing, he made his way in Australian publishing until by 1971 he was chairman of the magazine and printing division of the Herald and Weekly Times in Melbourne. In that year Murdoch recruited him to come to Britain to sort out problems at Bemrose, the printing operation he had acquired with the News of the World two years earlier.

He climbed the corporate ladder until in 1983 he was made managing director of News International, the umbrella company of Murdoch's British operations, which by then included the Times and Sunday Times. Almost immediately, Matthews became involved in the series of labour disputes that continued to plague the industry even after the previous owners of Times Newspapers had closed the papers down for a year in 1978-79 in an attempt by the management to wrest power back from the unions.

By nature a conciliator, he enjoyed good personal relations with many union leaders, but he was as frustrated as Murdoch by the impotence resulting from the ability of almost any section of the workforce to prevent production of a day's newspaper at will. The two men thus initiated a long-term strategy to destroy the unions' power.

The Wapping plant, embracing computer typesetting and other new technology, had been built in 1980 but remained unused for six years because of failure to reach agreement on manning levels. In 1985 Murdoch announced that he would use the plant to produce a new London evening paper, the Post. In fact he had no such intention, but he and Matthews needed a pretext to install modern production machinery and to prepare the plant secretly to print the four News International titles that then came out of Fleet Street and Gray's Inn Road - if necessary without any print union members being involved. Having done that, it was not difficult to provoke the strike of printers that gave Murdoch the opportunity to sack them all.

Until nearly the end, Matthews appeared to hope that the move to Wapping could be achieved without the total destruction of the print unions; but when it became clear that this was not to be, he ensured that the papers decamped with only the smallest hiccup in production. Some journalists refused to go, but most were persuaded by the offer of a generous bonus.

The deed accomplished, Matthews tried to secure a quick end to the large pro-union demonstrations that occurred regularly outside the Wapping plant for several months, but he could not fall in with the unions' demand that their workers should be given their old jobs back.

His terminal row with Murdoch was over whether the managers of the Fleet Street printing operations should be recruited for Wapping. Matthews argued that they had stayed loyal and some account should be taken of that, but Murdoch insisted that there had to be a complete break with the past. He feared that to re-employ anybody connected with the old ways would be to risk reintroducing the virus of collectivism.

Matthews fell from grace and soon quit. He was neither the first nor the last of Murdoch's once-trusted close colleagues to be reminded forcibly that, like Tudor courtiers, their continued enjoyment of the sweet life owed everything to the royal favour, and that if you climb high you must expect to fall hard.

Before Matthews, Harold Evans and Larry Lamb had suffered the same fate. Later Andrew Knight, Kelvin MacKenzie, Andrew Neil and even Murdoch's school friend Richard Searby were singed by flying too close to Murdoch's shining light.

Matthews' career was not over when he left News International. He harnessed his business acumen to his long-time love of horse racing when he became chairman of Satellite Information Services, relaying live television coverage of race meetings to betting shops. He will be remembered, though, for his key role in the reformation of the British newspaper industry.

Bruce Matthews, newspaper executive: born Sydney 28 July 1925; married (three daughters); died London 24 October 1996.