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Media 1986: Riot shields, ratings and the birth of the Independent

17 Feb 2016  |  Torin Douglas 
Media 1986: Riot shields, ratings and the birth of the Independent

Continuing his examination of a defining year in media, Torin Douglas remembers intense rioting at Wapping, a peoplemeter revolution, and the launch of a newspaper destined for a sad fate

The Independent's decision to stop printing and go online-only has made the events of 1986 even more relevant to today's media world than you might have anticipated when this column started last month.

Headlines like "The Independent dream that lasted for 30 years" and pictures of founder-editor Andreas Whittam-Smith holding the first edition, took some of us straight back to the heady days of October 1986 and the excitement generated by the confident and elegant challenger to The Times, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph (where Whittam-Smith had previously been City editor). By Christmas it was Newspaper of the Year in the 'What The Papers Say' Awards.

When the Independent started running my Adwatch column in 1987, it was selling over 300,000 copies a day, and soon it was over 400,000.

I still believe that if its founders had resisted the temptation to launch a Sunday paper, the Independent could have enjoyed a secure and lasting future. Instead, it began a head-on battle with the Sunday Correspondent, which delayed its planned flotation and tarnished its reputation among potential investors. For many years, the paper has been a shadow of its original self.

As if the Independent's online announcement wasn't enough to catapult 1986 back into the news this month, I also bumped into three of the editors who held centre stage during the newspaper revolution 30 years ago.

Brian MacArthur was the editor of Eddy Shah's Today newspaper, the UK's first national colour daily and the first to use the computer printing technology that had been boycotted by the trade unions.

In February 1986, he was working horrendously long hours, preparing for the paper's launch on 4 March in the teeth of dreadful technical problems. Its ad agency Wight Collins Rutherford Scott had come up with a star-studded - and very colourful - TV commercial but its slogan, "We're ready Eddy", was sadly far from the truth.

Charlie Wilson, the fearsome Glaswegian editor of The Times, was leading his staff into work behind the barbed wire at "Fortress Wapping", where violence was hotting up. On February 15th 1986, the BBC News website carried the headline "Printers and police clash in Wapping" over this story:

"Eight police officers have been injured and 58 people arrested in the worst outbreak of violence yet outside the News International printing plant in Wapping, east London. One officer, a 27-year-old sergeant, was taken to hospital with head injuries. Police used riot shields for the first time in the dispute.

"Police estimated 5,000 demonstrators gathered near the printing works for a mass demonstration. Similar mass protests have taken place regularly outside the Wapping plant ever since the start of a strike three weeks ago over new working conditions and the move from Fleet Street to cheaper premises in East London."


The Wapping dispute was to continue for another year but the writing was already on the wall for the print unions. Other newspaper groups, following Rupert Murdoch's lead, seized the chance to announce that they too would install the long-awaited computer technology. Grudgingly the unions returned to the negotiating table to save some of their jobs.

The third editor - Peter Cole - was at that time deputy editor of the Guardian, the paper which was to be worst hit by the success of the Independent. He became the founding editor of the short-lived Sunday Correspondent which was to launch in September 1989.

Sadly, but inevitably, it closed the following year after the Independent, having announced to the City that it would not launch a Sunday paper, did so in 1990.

Newspapers still set the political agenda in a way that online titles can only dream of."

All three editors had gathered to judge this year's Press Awards, which for many years have celebrated the best writing and reporting in newspapers. We met just three days before the Independent announced its decision to stop printing - but the topic was already in the air.

In a category I was judging, an online-only title was shortlisted for the first time. The name 'Press Awards' might suggest that all entries should come into contact with a printing press at some point. But the rules were changed to encompass the digital world, whether or not a title was - or had ever been - a newspaper.

They now read: "Entries can include work published in print, website, online, mobile, video, audio or any other news delivery format in any UK national newspaper or its related digital platform or any other news website or platform covering UK national news."

So that includes the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Mediatel and other online-only ventures (even, it would seem, broadcasters). The Independent will be eligible to enter next year's Awards when it is no longer printed. Indeed, I gather the rules were changed in anticipation of just such a move.

But let's not write off newspapers yet. The range and quality of the writing, reporting and photography in the Press Awards entries was much higher than most of the online-only content you can read.

Indy launch front page

The first edition of the Independent was published on Tuesday 7 October 1986

Newspapers still set the political agenda in a way that online titles can only dream of. And even when the Independent goes online-only, the UK will still have eight national dailies in print (nine if you include Metro) and eight more on Sundays.

30 years after the launch of the Independent, it should be some while before the last newspaper stops printing.

BARB '86

In February, people weren't only talking about newspapers. Several hundred of us crammed into BAFTA that month for "BARB '86" to discuss, among other things, the impact of the peoplemeters that AGB had installed in 3,000 panel homes.

Before that, to measure individual (as opposed to household) viewing, panel members had to fill in a paper diary, quarter-hour by quarter-hour, seven days a week, for each TV set in the home. At the end of the week, the diaries were posted back to AGM for processing.

The result of all the changes? Reported viewing levels went up by 20 per cent in two years.

But AGB had other things on its mind in February 1986. It was about to take on Nielsen in the United States...


Next month: Shahvision and schadenfreude.

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