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Trevor Davies

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Sun Close to Meltdown

Posted: 27/02/2012 10:59

"Never let a crisis go to waste", James Murdoch told gathered journalists at one of his 'town hall' business briefings, attended by staff from the News of the World under a three-line whip. Few wanted to be there. They had too much work to do back in the office.

He was talking in the context of an industry threatened by the economic decline roughly two years ago. The overall strategy was to use News International's huge presence in the market to survive the downturn, strengthened while others weakened or went under.

He talked of "efficiencies" and "synergies" to come and we all knew what that meant. More job losses. One of the rumoured 'efficiencies' at the time was seven-day working across the Sun and the News of the World titles.

The plan was to retain a nucleus of 'ring-fenced' staff at the News of the World who would deliver the chief 'market differentiator' of the paper, namely the front page splash and other bigger exclusives.

The rest of it would be produced by a pool of reporters, feature writers, sub-editors, picture desk editors, sports and art desk staff selected from across the Sun and the News of the World.

The resulting savings would mean the loss of many jobs.

I knew about this plan, because I was told that I would be one of the 'ring-fenced' staff to work on the News of the World. Two other members of staff told me they had also been earmarked for this nucleus.

Back then there were also rumours of management being unhappy about the duplication of online teams, one for the News of the World and one for the Sun. How much easier and cheaper it would be to have one brand online, 24/7.

So, whether or not the News of the World had closed, the result in terms of staff would probably have been roughly the same. That is around 20 rehired at the Sun and roughly 249 leaving the organisation.

Six months ago seven-day working would have been met with huge resistance from Sun staff, who either cherished their Saturday free time, or earned extra money by working at the News of the World or other national Sunday papers.

In fact, whenever Sun staff have been challenged to radically change their work patterns in the past, they have mainly succeeded in resisting the plans, by in effect telling management where to get off.

There is no union at the Sun, but until recently, there was a kind of unified confident attitude which management was wary of.

However Murdoch senior has wasted no time in putting the current crisis, of highly respected Sun journalists being under investigation, to good use.

He has, in effect, presented seven-day rotas as the way out of it.

And who are the shellshocked Sun staff to argue with him!

So the jubilant tweets and Facebook posts from some Sun staff about the new paper, before and after the launch, don't tell the whole story.

With just a few days to go to launch, the seven-day rotas had not been drawn up. And volunteers to work on Saturday to bring about the rise of a new Sun were not exactly rushing forward.

Full time staff have been told that nobody would earn less than £250 to work on Saturday. Incredibly, freelance Sun staff have been informed they will get no extra money. They reluctantly agreed to work the first Saturday for considerably less than they would have earned for a similar day's work on the News of the World, and a lot less than they could earn on other national Sunday papers.

With the prospect of their lives being plunged into new turmoil, many of the staff will insist that Saturday working is not in their contract. A fair few might refuse and present the company with the option of paying them off.

A three-month consultation process has started, I'm told, with a view to enforcing seven-day working. At the end of that period, the very real fear is that the company could 'exit' anyone unwilling to accept the changes.

During the last week of the News of the World, when staff worked on the final edition, a ghost team of Sun journalists was told to be on stand-by to produce it, in case of a last-minute mutiny. We knew because some of us bumped into them in the building that Saturday.

Last Saturday it is believed several Sun production executives were virtually ordered to turn up for work in case of heavy absenteeism among lower ranks and casuals.

Many of the 20 or so people taken on by the Sun from the News of the World, across various departments, were back working on Saturday.

The outside world probably has no idea of the pressure that Sun journalists are under to produce Britain's No. 1 newspaper six days a week.

Most of them work nights and have strained social lives, spending far less time than they would want with their families.

Saturday is the only day they can guarantee as their own. Most departments are stretched to the limit as it is, without having to contemplate a seven-day rota.

So, although on paper Murdoch has press time and an office and staff that can be reorganised to produce the Sun on an extra day, the cost to the highly talented staff who create it could be too high for many of them. And these are the people the paper cannot afford to lose.

And Sun staff, all too aware of how their friends at the News of the World were treated, do not trust Murdoch now.

Many believe he is squeezing as much value out of them as possible, simply to make it a more attractive package to sell, and get out of the UK.

All this could have dire consequences for the quality of the product. But whether Murdoch will care about that is another matter.

The Sun is closer than it has ever been to meltdown, but if there is one bunch of journalists who can survive it and come up smelling of roses, they can.

But, as for the former News of the World staff, one said: "It feels like our grave has finally settled and on Sunday, Murdoch finally put up a headstone, and a pretty cheap looking one at that."

 

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