Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 31 October 2008
I hope that somewhere else in this magazine there is a cheery announcement that Tribune has secured financial backing and that this will not be the last issue. But I’m not sure there is, so I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank you, dear readers, for having me. It’s now more than 22 years since I first wrote for Tribune and 10 since I started this column, and your persistent poisonous sniping and personal abuse have sustained me through many a dark hour.
Seriously, if this isn’t the last issue – and I don’t think it is – it has been a damn close-run thing, as the Duke of Wellington didn’t actually say of the Battle of Waterloo. Perhaps it’s not quite as close as it was in 1988, when we ran a front page adorned with the words “DON’T LET THIS BE THE LAST ISSUE OF TRIBUNE” after the then board of directors decided to pull the plug in a week – this time, the magazine has had all of a month to organise a rescue. But it’s closer than at any time in the intervening two decades.
Of course, Tribune has a glorious history of financial crisis. It was launched as a newspaper in 1937 by two rich Labour MPs, Sir Stafford Cripps and George Strauss, as a vehicle for the Unity Campaign, a quixotic attempt to unite the Labour left with the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party, with Cripps and Strauss putting up £18,000 of their own cash (roughly £800,000 in today’s money). They assumed they would achieve a break-even circulation of 50,000 in a matter of weeks and then recoup their investment – but in fact the paper used up all the dosh in nine months and barely hit 25,000.
Cripps continued reluctantly to subsidise its losses through 1938 and 1939 – a period when Tribune became an adjunct to the publisher Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club – but then lost interest and dropped out of completely in spring 1940 on his appointment as ambassador to Moscow, leaving control of the paper to Aneurin Bevan and Strauss. Strauss picked up the tab and continued to do so for several years – but he too blew hot and cold and dropped out on becoming a junior minister in the 1945 Labour government.
By the late 1940s, Tribune was on its uppers again and resorted to selling editorial space to Labour Party headquarters – and in 1950 it was forced to go fortnightly, resuming weekly publication only in 1952. Throughout the 1950s, it survived only thanks to non-stop fundraising, most of it from readers but some from anonymous rich benefactors. One of these was the maverick Tory press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who handed over £3,000 when his rival Lord Kemsley sued Tribune for libel.
The 1960s and 1970s were decades of relative stability for the paper despite a slow decline in circulation – largely because many of the trade unions were left-led and were persuaded to take bulk orders and solidarity advertising – and in the early 1980s Tribune’s finances were buoyed by advertisements from local councils under left-wing Labour control, particularly Ken Livingstone’s GLC. But in the mid-1980s the financial situation deteriorated rapidly. The unions, with membership in decline, tightened their belts and merged. The GLC was abolished by the Thatcher government and the rules on local council spending were tightened. By the end of 1987 it looked as if the writing was on the wall, and in early 1988, with circulation around 5,000, the board decided Tribune would have to close.
It didn’t, for two reasons. The paper’s readers rallied round magnificently, raising £40,000 in a little more than a fortnight, and the unions agreed to pay for a promotion campaign. That worked, but not quite well enough, and there was another minor crisis in early 1991 that led to the paper going down from 12 tabloid pages to eight for six months. In the meantime, however, we raised sufficient funds to buy desktop publishing equipment, which slashed production costs – and the rest of the 1990s were plain sailing.
There was another wobble in 2002-03, which was resolved by a consortium of unions taking ownership of Tribune and promising long-term investment – but by this spring they had got cold feet, and last month they decided that this would be the last issue unless a buyer could be found. Every time I’ve spoken to the editor since, he has expressed cautious optimism about the prospects. I’ve just been keeping my fingers crossed: I hope we haven’t used up our nine lives.
And the moral of the story? Well, there isn’t one, except that it has always been difficult to sustain left-wing newspapers. Whether it is more difficult now than it used to be is a moot point – but that’s for another column. If there is one …