Bert Hardy: Newspaper executive and architect of Murdoch's move to Wapping

Wednesday 25 March 2009 01:00

The description in several tributes of Bert Hardy as a Fleet Street legend contains the irony that he played a leading role in the demise of the street as the home of Britain's national newspapers.

He was one of the architects of the Rupert Murdoch revolution which, with the transfer of newspaper production to Wapping, broke the power of the print unions and opened the way to huge technological advances. Hardy was not involved in the actual move to east London in 1986: by that stage Murdoch had sacked him. But he was highly delighted when the press baron rang him at the time to say, "Thank you, Bert. You were right and I was wrong."

It was just one episode in a long career, but it has ensured that Hardy will be remembered as both a stalwart of the newspaper business and one who helped to change it dramatically. The Wapping move was a tough business, but Hardy was known as a tough character in an era populated by big beasts and featuring fierce, no-quarter struggles for power and survival.

He came from a north London family which was so poor that he remembered his unemployed father singing in the street for pennies. He made his way into the newspaper business by the traditional route of running errands as a copy boy.

After a brief spell in the army he returned to newspapers, becoming an advertising executive with the Daily Mirror and working for the Daily Herald and The Sun. Then he caught the eye of Murdoch, who persuaded him to leave the Mirror Group after 20 years. "I was in seventh heaven," Hardy said of his meeting with Murdoch. "He was so charismatic." He went on to become chief executive of News International, helping to build the Murdoch empire in Britain. But as good chief executives go, he went, sacked after 10 years.

"I got a bit too big for my boots," Hardy later admitted to the media pundit Roy Greenslade. "I began to think it was my business. I pissed Rupert off by telling him what we were going to do rather than asking him." However, before the split with Murdoch, he persuaded him to buy land at Wapping with a view to building a new facility which would create a decisive advantage in the company's eternal battle with the unions.

Murdoch hesitated and for a time the project looked as though it was going nowhere, earning it the nickname of "Hardy's folly". By the time it came to fruition, Hardy had gone. He spent a frustrating year outside the industry, a period which he blamed for the breakdown of his marriage. Hardy held a number of directorships, including at Channel 4. But he was primarily a newspaperman, and he returned to the fray with Associated Newspapers, helping to run the Evening Standard. He was the opposite of a yes-man, ever ready to disagree with anyone, including his senior commercial colleagues, editors and proprietors. He took no steps to soften his reputation as a bruiser from the old Fleet Street school.

"Bert was one hell of a tough negotiator who didn't suffer fools gladly," the Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre said of him, "but his brilliance and foresight changed the course of our business."

Once, when locked in a tussle with Robert Maxwell, who was something of a bruiser's bruiser, Maxwell accused him of using "lies, threats, bare-faced cheek and the language of a Wapping thug." Hardy had said in a television interview that a struggle between the Evening Standard and a new paper launched by Maxwell would be "a dirty battle – it is going to be a battle on the streets."

In response, Maxwell protested: "That is especially menacing when some of our people have already faced harassment and vendors have been intimidated in an attempt to stop them handling our paper."

Hardy prevailed, however, and Maxwell's project quickly folded, in an episode remembered in the business for the use of some tactics which bordered on the questionable. Of Maxwell, Hardy later said dismissively: "I barely knew him, but he never convinced me of his toughness. Whenever he acted tough, it was always with somebody else's publications."

By contrast, he retained both affection and respect for Murdoch. "I know him better than most people," he said. "He's marvellous, a very warm person. I still value him as a friend. He gave me 10 of the best years of my life."

In turn, Murdoch said of Hardy: "He was the guiding light behind our move to Wapping and instrumental in the success of the historic development of the Docklands site. He was a tough and courageous executive at a time when we faced great difficulties on the union front."

Hardy retired a couple of times, but was brought back by other proprietors who sought his help at times of crisis.

He was proud of the fact that he had risen from comparative poverty to a position of mingling with the rich and powerful, owning racehorses and keeping a box at Royal Ascot each year. "I've enjoyed every minute," he said in one interview. "There hasn't been a day that I've not wanted to go to work. They've been great days, all of them."

David McKittrick

Herbert Charles (Bert) Hardy, newspaper executive: born London 13 December 1928; chief executive, News International, 1969-79; chief executive, Associated Newspapers, 1989-94; chairman, Evening Standard Co. Ltd, 1989-94; director, Channel 4 Television Corp, 1992-98; director, Channel One TV, 1994-95; chairman, Teletext Holdings, 1995-96; chief executive, The European, 1995-98; deputy chairman, The Scotsman Publications Ltd, 1995-99; chief executive and deputy chairman, Press Holdings, 1995-99, director 1999-2000; director, Evening Standard, 2001-07; married 1959 Irene Burrows (marriage dissolved; one daughter), 1999 Janet Goldsmith; died London 10 March 2009.

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