London, Asharq Al-Awsat- If former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was known as the “Iron Lady” due to her unwavering policy towards foreign issues and trade unions in the late 1980s, then the ex-newspaper magnate, Eddy Shah, certainly deservers moniker of “The Iron Man”; especially when considering that it was this man’s fierce battle with the unions that helped pave the way for Britain’s historical transformation in accomplished during the Thatcher era.
As I traveled to meet Shah who retired from the industry long ago to run a golf and country club in Swindon, in South West England, I felt slightly intimidated, after all it is not every day you meet someone who stood up against some 10000 protesters and won, and why did he choose to leave all that behind. Oh the ego.
However, I was amazed to find that Shah was nothing like I imagined; he was quite modest and friendly…When I told him of the preconceived notion I had of him, he laughed ridiculing his infamous reputation, apparently shared by many, saying that “People often imagine that I am the type that would eat a baby’s head for breakfast!”.
Also, I found out that Eddy Shah, although born in Britain, is of Iranian descent and says that his family is descended from the Iranian Aga Khan family. As a child he traveled often to India and Pakistan, his dad was a revolutionary too… being the first member of the family to “dare to” marry a “foreigner”, Eddy’s mother was of Irish/English descent.
In the following interview with Asharq Al Awsat, he reveals the details of his battle with the unions, why he retired and explains how his wife became the “secret of his persistence”.
Q: How did feel seeing the entire newspapers industry voluntarily embracing what you fought for? How do you account for yourself, rather than other publishing magnates at that time, having that “early vision”?
A: I think that my theater and television background before joining the printed press helped me to a great degree. Everyone looked at the press from a conventional perspective but on account of my visual background, I had another perspective. I would see pictures! Not only this, but I also would “cross the cultures” of television and newspapers and I thought if you can make television programs financed by advertisers then why couldn’t you make newspapers financed by advertisers. The result was that I initiated a “free” newspaper for readers in Britain that was financed through advertising and distributed free – a concept that is gaining great success these days – particularly since that at that time, there had been no free newspapers providing editorial content to the readers. Rather there were only advertisement publications [such as al Waseet and al Waseela in the Arab world]. The first such newspaper was the weekly Sale & Altrincham Messenger, which is still published today with 124 pages.
Q: How did you persuade people around you to adopt the “culture of pictures?”
A: The problem with pictures was that journalists thought only in terms of the text, with the pictures being of secondary importance. In those days, people thought in black and white and thought that a picture has to be dramatic and that you can’t use color pictures in newspapers because it would take away the dramatic value! When I got over the hurdle of the concept of tradition that dominated journalists at that time, I ran into the problem of what was and what was not available. In other words, I had the vision but the technology at that time was not suitable. After all, we are talking about the early and mid-1980s.
Q: How did your problems with the trade unions start?
A: The first battle began in 1982. What happened was that I acquired more newspapers. I had about 150 employees, so the trade unions pressed for compulsory membership. We had union members but we as an organization we were not a member of the union. So I consulted the staff and it went to a vote where six of the staff did not want to join the union. I told the union representatives and they told me to dismiss these six employees, but I refused, and that’s when the first union dispute of this country began. We then ended up using the new laws that Margaret Thatcher had introduced.
Because I had not had experience in the traditional way of print, I only understood new technology. I just used what made common sense to me, which was computers. I went to America and spent a month there with a person who helped me redesign newspapers (using Pagemaker). I suggested using Apple computers when everyone used the old mainframe computers, which did not leave room for much choice when it came to pictures. Obviously the Apple system was the logical choice as it was programmed to process photos, which was difficult at that time. The words could always be added to the picture. Our company was the first to use servers, which was also logical since I had the technology. However, those around me could not see my vision.
Q: Are you referring to trade unions?
A: The unions could see that new technology meant that they would lose their power. They fought fiercely. They thought they could stop me but [he says smiling] I’m half Iranian and half Irish – two of the most fanatical groups in the world so it’s in my blood to fight back! Furthermore, [the international media mogul] Rupert Murdoch once said to me that change would come from a smaller company and not a big company because the smaller ones have a greater ability to move around and to push for change but the bigger ones are bound by their size and number of staff. The country was also behind us because the trade unions went too far. A year before this incident, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. She was returned from hospital because there was no one to offer her treatment as nurses united in solidarity with the porters strike. What do the porters have to do with somebody who has cancer? I have no idea. Well, I defeated the print union and later the government defeated the miners union. Afterwards, Murdoch relocated his newspapers from Fleet Street to Wapping, ushering in a new chapter in the history of British newspapers.
Q: The battle with the unions reached a boiling point where at one point you were sent coffins to your house for each member of your family. What was that like?
A: They sent two big ones [for himself and his wife] and three little ones [for his children]. At that time my wife was home alone. It was very violent. Imagine 10,000 people staging demonstrations against you from your workplace to your home. We resorted to the police who at first weren’t cooperative because they were scared of the unions.
Q: Were you frightened?
A: For some reason when you strongly believe in something, you do not feel fear. There was another factor—my wife. For example, when they sent the coffins home, I asked her ‘Maybe it is time to give up?’ and she said ‘If you give up, I’m leaving you’. I asked myself am I scared of 10,000 people or my wife. So I did not surrender. There was something else that largely changed our view of life. As I said earlier, my wife was diagnosed with cancer the year before those incidents took place and doctors said she had 3 months to live at the most. Later, however, they tried a new treatment that resulted in success. When you see someone close to you fighting death, it puts everything else into perspective. At the end of the day, at worst, I would have lost my home and my business.
Q: What goals did you set out to achieve with the launching of the newspaper ‘Today’?
I wanted to use new technology to give somebody the freedom to create a national newspaper of 30,000 copies a day to bring down the cost of production and this would bring down the cost of production. This took the power away from the production people so the creators would be the journalists. They are the people with the ideas. We managed to bring out Today quickly [it was the first full-color, computer photoset British newspaper]. However, the problem we faced again was that we were ahead of technology. We could only send pictures in those days at 300 dpi, but we needed at least 1,000 dpi for an acceptable newspaper photo [at that time]. So we were stuck all the time. Also, we had a problem with color separation. Now it is all about pressing a button and it’s done.
Q: So why did you sell the newspaper and why did you establish ‘The Post’ later?
A: Well, as I said before, our problem with Today was that we were ahead of technology. The available technology was never quite right for us. We lost £13 million on it but we sold it for £14 million so we made a million from Lonrho. The biggest problem was that we didn’t have enough money for the marketing; we should have put £20 million aside for marketing, which we didn’t have. The market position had already changed with the presence of people like Robert Maxwell [the late British newspaper magnet and MP who owned a large group of publications] who would give away £1 million prizes and we didn’t have the money for that. In fact, I launched ‘The Post’ for the wrong reasons. I started it just to prove to people that I could do it. Once it was on the market, I said to myself that this wrong. I was aiming it at ‘The Star’ and ‘The Sun’ market, which I didn’t feel comfortable with. However, that was the only thing I’ve ever done to prove people wrong; I have always done things because I think they are the right things to do.
Q: Is it true that you almost sold ‘Today’ to Egyptian businessman Mohamed al Fayed?
A: Yes. Actually it was an interesting story. He and I struck a deal. I hadn’t been home for about five weeks and when I finally went home and when I opened the paper [Today’s Sunday], there was a huge story that was attacking Mohamed al Fayed so I thought ‘There goes the deal’. I lost my temper and called the editor and the thing is it wasn’t even a strong story! It was an old story that had been regurgitated. He said, “But you’ve always given us independent freedom,” and I replied, “Yes, of course, but use your brain!” I was trying to rescue the newspaper and he published a piece that had no added value against the man who would save us.
Q: So you sold it to Lonrho, which in turn sold it to Murdoch, correct?
A: Yes. There is also an interesting story behind this. After the story about al Fayed was published in the newspaper, I received a phone call from his lawyer. Not bothering to hear what he had to say, I said: “Don’t bother saying anything; it’s been nice knowing you!” Later, I sat thinking about who could buy the newspaper and I thought who hates Mohamed al Fayed and it was Tiny Rowland, the chairman of the Lonrho conglomerate [the gold-mines giant who in 1990s, sought to expand its businesses and take over Harrods that is owned by al Fayed]. So I called them and said I’d like to meet Tiny Rowland and it was funny because they said to me “We were just about to call you!”
Q: Are you proud of the fact that publishers today have incorporated what you embraced over twenty years ago?
A: If I am proud, then I would be living in the past. Now I focus on my new business and family life as well as my few written works. I have achieved what I wanted to in journalism and publishing. It is over!
Q: Is this the difference between pride and ego?
A: I do not believe in ego. See the difference between Maxwell and Murdoch who both grew at the same time is that, from my perspective, Murdoch is the complete professional. Whatever he does, he does because it is right for the business and that is what he taught me. He does not have an ego or at least he did not have an ego and he has gone on to be perhaps one of the greatest media people in the world. If you look at Maxwell, he was driven by ego and he ended up committing suicide [some people believe he committed suicide while others believe he fell overboard from his yacht and drowned in 1991]. If you allow yourself to be driven by ego, you will never succeed. You have to be a professional at what you do and I believe that I have been professional in everything I have done in my life.
That is why I’ve never written my memoirs because as soon as you write your memoirs you start to take yourself seriously. My father always said not to look back.
Q: how do you see the future of newspapers publishing in the internet era?
A: I don’t buy newspapers anymore except the Sunday Times because there are analyses and various supplements. Why should I buy a daily newspaper that gives me “old” news when I can find out what is happening around the world straight away through television or the Internet? Newspapers have to build on their basic advantage of being constantly “available.” For example, if you missed a piece of news on television or if you could not understand what is being said, you will miss the entire subject. As for the Internet, one has to have a computer and an internet-connection. There is something that is solid about the printed word whether it’s a book, magazine or newspaper; you can hold it, look at it, read it again or read it to someone else. The only thing that would take over eventually is something like an “i-Book” and plastic paper because it would combine the advantage of dealing easily with and carrying paper as well as the “instantaneous” advantage of the Internet and television.