Media 1986: Shahvision and schadenfreude
Continuing his examination of a defining year in media, Torin Douglas takes us back to March 1986 – and a disaster waiting to happen for Eddy Shah and the UK’s first full-colour newspaper.
I wonder what Eddy Shah makes of the new Newsworks ad campaign on behalf of national newspaper publishers. The one that proclaims “On paper and on screen, we set the day’s agenda – every day.”
Thirty years ago, most newspapers had little to do with screens: the print unions had forbidden the use of computer technology. The only screens their readers had were attached to their TV sets.
But in March 1986 those TV screens were being blitzed with the biggest ever ad campaign for a newspaper – the launch of Today, Britain’s first all-electronic national paper and the first to be printed in full colour. The newspaper revolution was under way.
Six weeks before, Rupert Murdoch had stolen some of Shah’s thunder by moving his four national newspapers to a new computerised printing plant in Wapping. But the catalyst for Wapping – some would say the ‘decoy duck’ – was Shah’s widely-publicised plan for the launch of Today.
The man who claims the credit for the idea was one of Murdoch’s lieutenants – Andrew Neil, who had recently been appointed as the editor of the Sunday Times.
Neil had been impressed by Shah’s determination to tackle the print unions at his regional newspaper group, in what became known as the Battle of Warrington. He gave the dispute the full Sunday Times treatment – ‘Union at Bay’, over four pages in the heart of the paper – including a leading article headed ‘A Battle for Britain’.
In his book Full Disclosure, Neil described his first meeting with Eddy Shah, two months later, over tea at the Savoy Hotel. He said Shah asked him what he should do next.
‘”You should take what you have in Warrington,” I [Neil] said, “and repeat it on a national scale. Start a new newspaper, using the latest computer technology and colour presses, but without the print unions.”‘
Neil wrote: ‘I was pushing at an open door: he was hungry to know more…Thus was the Today newspaper born. I had urged the idea on Eddy not just for his benefit but for my own self-interest. He had shaken off the shackles of the print unions but Fleet Street was still in chains.’
Today was also acknowledged as the genesis for the launch of The Independent, a paper that was to launch to huge acclaim – unlike Today – later that year.
By March 1986, opinion polls showed that more than 90 per cent of the British public recognised the name of Eddy Shah. Brian MacArthur, Neil’s former deputy editor at the Sunday Times, who had joined Shah as the editor of Today, said he was seen as ‘the hero of the Battle of Warrington, who was now taking on the mighty battalions of Fleet Street. Most of the nation was undoubtedly willing him on.’
Shah’s fame – along with the much-vaunted colour printing – became the basis of the newspaper’s launch ad campaign.
In his honest and entertaining account, Eddy Shah, Today and the Newspaper Revolution, MacArthur wrote: ‘Eddy Shah had been promised the best and biggest newspaper launch in history and on the night of 3rd March 1986 he was getting it. On the hour, every hour, the nation had been blitzed for four days by a £2 million advertising campaign on television.’
The campaign featured a host of celebrities including Joanna Lumley, Marie Helvin, Janet Street-Porter, Frank Bruno, David Bailey and Bob Geldof. Snooker player Dennis Taylor was shown potting all the balls and telling viewers that Today would bring the latest sports news – in red, green, brown, blue, pink, black and red again. Rudolph Nureyev said Today would cover the arts in Graham Greenes, Prussian blues and Russian reds. David Frost put on a pair of sunglasses.
The ads said Today would be ‘blue, yellow, green, brown – and red all over’ and then switched to the paper’s office, where staff put on red sunglasses and shouted ‘We’re ready, Eddy’. It ended with Shah saying with a wry smile ‘I hope I’m ready’.
MacArthur wrote: ‘It was a memorable advertisement by Wight Collins Rutherford Scott which haunted Today for months and offered easy headlines to knocking commentators…The trouble was: we weren’t ready at all.’
Behind the scenes, almost everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. The new technology wasn’t working properly and most of the production staff, hired at below the market rate, had little newspaper experience. At one point, it was noticed that the walls were hot – the whole building was ‘live’ because computer cables had been laid over electric cables and it hadn’t been properly earthed.
‘All launches are difficult. Ours was awful’ wrote MacArthur. Only 10 days earlier, they had heatedly debated whether to postpone the launch. They didn’t, MacArthur said, because they’d already booked the advertising time, they would still have had to pay the staff – and they would have been a laughing stock.
The front page of the first issue was due to display a colour picture of the Queen in Australia, but by press time it hadn’t arrived and for a while the electronic system had gone down.
‘The nightmare that had haunted me for a year was coming true’ wrote MacArthur. ‘Britain’s massively-advertised first colour national newspaper would have to go to press with a black and white picture on the front page.’
Almost worse, when the colour picture did finally appear in the paper in a later edition, it was fuzzy and out of register – a look widely mocked as ‘Shahvision’. After all the hype, commentators, advertisers and Today’s rivals were quick to pounce.
In his Press Gang column in Punch, Roy Hattersley wrote witheringly: ‘Today looks and reads like an upmarket freesheet.’ Media Week’s front page headline was ‘Today: Eddy wasn’t ready’. It said agencies were disappointed and quoted one agency managing director: ‘We could only get hold of two copies and the colour was different in both of them.’
Things weren’t to get much better.
Next month: Press ’86 in Paris and Brian MacArthur literally eats his words.