On Wednesday 20 April I joined the march from Enfield town centre in defence of our local newspapers in north London. It took the form of a funeral procession, with coffin, incense, the grim reaper and all the trimmings. It was, however, a very upbeat occasion, despite the savage cuts that had been carried out by papers’ management, leaving just three reporters to ‘churn out’ nine newspaper editions every week.  The journalists, unable to get any sense out of the owner, Sir Ray Tindle, have decided to strike to get some of the vacant jobs filled. At the end of the short march we heard speeches from Jonathan Lovett the FOC (NUJ branch secretary) Barry Fitzpatrick (NUJ  head of publishing) and from local readers, campaigners and supporters including Brenda Dean (now Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde and Privy Councillor) who was General Secretary of SOGAT 82, the print workers union, during the Wapping dispute. An excellent report on the strike and the plight of local newspapers appeared in the Morning Star a couple of days later, written by Will Stone and follows. For more information about the strike also visit http://strikegazadpres.wordpress.com

No more Mr Nice Guy

Morning Star Friday 22 April 2011 by Will Stone

It’s not been a great few years for local news and things just seem to be going from bad to worse. Since the recession began in 2008 hard working and underpaid local reporters have been waiting with bated breath as their publishing companies, renowned for making the most brutal cuts imaginable, sharpen their proverbial axes.

In 2007, just before the meltdown, Trinity Mirror, which made particularly savage cutbacks on its titles during the recession, as part of its ongoing plans to clear massive debts, agreed to sell 27 regional newspapers in London and the south-east to Tindle Newspapers. The sale included South London Press and its sister title North London and Herts, both award-winning titles.

Sir Ray Tindle, who set up Tindle Newspaper Group with £300 demob money given to soldiers at the end of WWII, has built a unique reputation as being a “saviour of local news” after he bought the Tenby Observer out of receivership in 1978.

The 82-year-old was knighted in 1994 for his services to newspapers and was recently reported to have said: “Despite the doom-mongers regional newspapers are alive and well.”

So for reporters on the titles recently bought by Sir Ray from Trinity Mirror things were looking up at the outset with hopes that they would fare better during the recession than they would have had the sale not gone through.

Now the picture is not as bright, at least not for North London and Herts newspapers. Despite Sir Ray being proud of the fact that Tindle has not made any redundancies since the recession officially began in 2008 the group’s natural wastage policy has grossly backfired after six reporters – I was the second to leave after having worked for the group’s Haringey and Barnet titles for three years – and a photographer left without being replaced.

The consequence? Three reporters are struggling to produce nine titles including a sports reporter who is now forced to write news.

Tindle’s policy not to replace staff has got so out of control that moving individuals to different jobs has become routine. Pages across news, arts and sport have also been drastically cut back leaving morale at an all-time low and the quality of the newspapers plummeting to unprecedented depths.

Labour MP for Edmonton Andy Love said: “I’ve watched the standard of these papers drop over past months with great sadness. I believe that the local journalists are under additional pressures due to staff reductions and the number of papers they are expected to produce.

“This leaves them less able to investigate and evaluate stories which not only affects quality but affects community accountability as well.”

It comes as no surprise then that the journalists at North London and Herts began strike action this week – Tindle’s first for more than 30 years.

The two-week strike action saw a demonstration on Wednesday featuring a funeral procession through Enfield Town, the grim reaper and a priest reading out the last rites over the corpse – their newspaper titles.

But on Monday, the eve before journalists began their strike, Sir Ray and his henchmen sent a letter to the NUJ chapel at North London and Herts threatening redundancies caused by a need to make the papers more profitable by “restructuring” them.

It seems that even a knight’s armour can lose its shine.

Certainly chapel father Jonathan Lovett thinks so.

“It is a case of the emperor’s new clothes – once he is put to the test Sir Ray has shown himself to be just like all the other newspaper owners who value the bottom line over staff and readers,” he said.

“The mask of benevolence has slipped at the first challenge to his authority and the centre which he professes to care about so much is now at risk. This has only strengthened our resolve in our battle for quality news in the face of soul-destroying churnalism.

“The current Tindle business plan threatens to let once award-winning newspapers dwindle and die.”

NUJ head of publishing Barry Fitzpatrick criticised Tindle from threatening to break away from its glowing track record of avoiding compulsory redundancies.

He said: “This is a dispute that should not be happening. If this business is to have any future it must rely on the quality of journalism and sufficient staff to produce the titles.

“We are concerned that management is responding to a serious issue by making an apparent threat of redundancies at this late hour.

“This approach is not addressing the issues at the heart of the dispute, which are non-replacement of staff and the quality of local journalism. Certainly management’s action can only make matters worse.”

Unfortunately this is the picture across local news across the country, not just in north London.

Mr Fitzpatrick’s comments come weeks after delegates at NUJ’s conference in Southport passed motions to back local newspaper chapels fighting jobs losses and to draw the public’s attention to the big profits being pocketed by their bosses.

A spokeswoman for Tindle added that it regrets it may no longer be able to uphold its no redundancy resolution in the face of the losses at North London and Herts newspapers.

It remains to be seen whether any of Tindle’s remaining 220-odd titles will follow the lead being set by North London and Herts.