MA at 225

Blast from the past: former MA editors have their say

By The Morning Advertiser

- Last updated on GMT

What they said: MA's past editors give their view on the publication's history
What they said: MA's past editors give their view on the publication's history

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Past Morning Advertiser editors, including Rob Willock, Terry Cockerell and Andrew Pring, give their favourite anecdotes about the trade and the magazine.

Terry Cockerell, 1971-1990:

When I first became editor, we still ran national news, which we got from the two major news agencies, the Press Association and Reuters. (In fact, The Morning Advertiser​ (MA​) was the first newspaper to use Reuters news agency).

It was a daily newspaper and we also had quite a lot of sports pages. We were the only paper apart from The Sporting Life with daily national racing fixtures. After a few years, it was decided they could no longer run it with national news and it would become an all-trade paper apart from the sports pages.

I was given the task of filling a 16-page paper daily with purely trade news. I increased the number of staff men we had in the provinces, we had our own reporters covering a different area from the north of England down to the West Country.

Somedays we even ran 20 pages. People said it couldn’t be done but it was.

MA​ was bombed during the war and set on fire by incendiary bombs and, when I first joined, we had some little offices in Fleet Street for the trade editorial and then further property down in Tudor Street.

The City of London

In these offices were the sub-editors who dealt mainly with general news. We became the first building in the City of London to be rebuilt and opened, that was in Tudor Street.

We were at Tudor Street for many years then we moved from Fleet Street to offices in Brixton. We published and had all the printing facilities there.

Then we moved our printing to a company in east London, we were near Old Street in those days – all economic measures as it became more and more difficult to run a daily newspaper.

There were 72,000 pubs in England and Wales at the height of MA’s​ history. They gradually started to close and an increasing number were put under management instead of tenant licensees and the number has diminished ever since.

I often used to appear on the television news programmes and I remember being in the middle of a BBC interview and we got news through that an IRA bomb had gone off at a pub in Birmingham.

‘Running out of answers’

They kept interrupting us to go to Birmingham so the planned interview of about four minutes went on and on. I said to the interviewer, ‘I’m running out of answers’ and she said ‘I’m running out of questions’.

We were defenders of public houses and the Salvation Army (SA) were opponents of the trade. Before I became editor, the SA were getting up to various pranks against pubs and I went with the editor to the SA to discuss this.

We were going up in the lift and a SA girl said ‘are you Salvationists? Where are you from?’ When we said we were from MA​, she almost screamed.

It just gradually became no longer viable to try and run a daily newspaper purely for licensed victuallers, the cost factor was why we gave up the agencies and became a purely trade paper. During my editorship we made the highest profits in the paper’s history but unfortunately it became no longer viable to run a daily newspaper for a single industry.

Rob Willock 2011-2015:

Rob Willock

In November 2011, I was only one week into my tenure as editor of the (then) Publican’s Morning Advertiser​ (PMA​) and looking forward to a gentle life of drinking real ale in cosy snugs, overdoing the pork scratchings, improving my pool and darts, and enjoying some Morris dancing.

People were still congratulating me on landing ‘the best job in the world’ when suddenly the government issued its response to the Business, Innovation & Skills Committee’s Report into pubcos’ relationships with tenants, and thus renewed politicians’ interest in the beer tie.

The debate – that ultimately led to the creation of market-rent-only (MRO) option for pubco lessees – was as divisive as it was fascinating.

Passions ran high among both the pro and anti-tie movements, and the PMA’s​ editor was certainly not immune from criticism.

You know when people say “don’t worry, I’ve been called worse”? Well, I hadn’t! So much for the easy ride.

Other highlights

If that was the topic that dominated my three-and-a-half years in the chair, there were other highlights.

I’ll always cherish the moment when I discovered (in a pile of documents that somehow came into my possession) that the anti-VAT campaign – championed by JD Wetherspoon’s chairman Tim Martin – was fined for forgetting to pay its VAT bill. Headlines like that don’t come along often in a journalist’s career.

A more successful industry campaign saw three consecutive years of beer duty cuts (2013-2015), though that in itself wasn’t enough to reverse the trend of pub closures.

I remember talking about 50,000 pubs in 2011. Now I see there are fewer than 40,000, with yet 18 more per week shutting their doors for the final time, which is a great shame – but which plainly reflects changing lifestyles and consumer preferences.

Talking of which, something that has survived the decade is the craft beer sector – obviously not the flash-in-the-pan I thought it would be.

But then I predicted the iPad wouldn’t catch on. So (massive generalisation alert) if you like beer that is so over-hopped that it hurts your cheeks, and are willing to pay £7 for a small can of the stuff, good for you. And better still for the pub licensee.

Great British Pub Awards

Ultimately, that’s who it’s all about – publicans and their teams of staff. I had the pleasure of handing out Great British Pub Awards to dozens of the best, and that gave me – and hopefully them – huge satisfaction.

I’m now living in Dubai, where I work for The Economist Group. Sadly there is not much of a pub scene out here, at least as we know it in the UK. Cask-conditioned ale is simply not available.

And even ‘standard lager’ costs £10 a pint (don’t even ask what you’d pay for craft). But you’ll be pleased to know that I am coping.

I’m still in touch with lots of great people – but miss many more – from my time as editor of the pub industry bible.

Which, with hindsight (and apologies to Carlsberg), was indeed ‘probably the best job in the world’.

Andrew Pring, 2000-2009:

Andrew Pring

I was fortunate to join The Morning Advertiser​ (MA​) when I did. [Publisher] William Reed had become a partner alongside the Society of Licensed Victuallers (now the LTC), and was embarking on the wholesale transformation of a much-loved, but struggling, title.

I was recruited by publisher Jerry Gosney and tasked with revitalising editorial content. Helped by commissioned market research and my love of the pub trade, we turned Britain’s oldest trade title (and the nation’s longest continuously published) into a fresh and engaging new magazine/newspaper.

I likened our work to an enterprising licensee taking on a grand old coaching inn, one that had seen far better times, and investing much time and money in lovingly adapting it to modern tastes.

There were structural alterations – we moved to a weekly title and more than doubled the circulation. There were internal refurbishments – better quality paper, a brighter design.

And we restocked the bar – refreshing the offer with new guest columns featuring the thoughts and personalities of licensees and trade leaders (Guv’nor, My Shout, Pub Juke Box); introducing new writers (among them, Pete Brown and seasoned campaigner but novice writer Phil Dixon); and recruiting lively new staff (Graham Holter, Rosie Davenport, Paul Wootton and Paul Charity).

Roger Protz

It wasn’t totally ‘out with the old, in with the new’. Roger Protz and Peter Coulson, solid and popular parts of MA’s​ foundations, were given bigger platforms.

Chief sub-editor Garth Williams, long-standing member of the MA​ and a former news editor, continued as a vital member of the team, as did pub stalwart Mike Bennett and north-west regional reporter Tony Halstead.

The leasehold revolution was in full swing, with many dynamic companies and individuals breathing life into tired old estates.

To help licensees make the best of their opportunities, we had business-building ideas, drawn from travels across the trade.

We genuinely wanted to help licensees in whatever way we could. When the smoking ban loomed, we worked hard with trade partners to help licensees adapt.

We launched Pub Chef​ magazine to support pubs transitioning to a more food-based offer.

Raw deal from their pubcos

We also knew – how could we not? – that many licensees were getting a raw deal from their pubcos.

So we invited them to complete lengthy questionnaires, citing grievances, and were inundated with hundreds of responses.

Not all of them were angry replies; some were pleased with their pubcos but there was evidence of poor practice for our surveys – which became annual events – to be cited by MPs when they began investigating the trade. I believe our initiative played a role in the reforms that followed.

The relaunch succeeded, and after many happy years I left just as our rival – The Publican – was snapped up by William Reed and incorporated into MA​.

Job done, and I’m happy to raise a glass to what I’m sure will be at least a further couple of hundred years of serving licensees!

Garth Williams, acting editor 1990:

Garth Williams

When I first joined The Morning Advertiser​ back in the Orwellian-heralded year of 1984, it was less a case of entering a dystopian future and more one of stepping back into a cosy past.

At that time it was still a daily newspaper but, unlike most of its contemporaries, MA​ still had its own printing press and was still put together every day by its own team of printers using hot-metal Linotype machines.

In the wider licensed trade itself it was a similar story. It felt very much like pubs were caught up in some sort of comfortable time warp.

They operated by a strict set of rules that everyone knew and, up to a point, observed, shutting up shop in the middle of the afternoon.

A limited number had started dabbling in food, however as far as the vast majority of publicans were concerned they were there to serve drink and mostly beer.

Publishing and pubs

But the winds of change were blowing through the worlds of publishing and pubs.

Within a year MA’s​ printing press and printers had gone, and the ‘bible of the trade’, as it was often called, had entered the brave new world of contract printing.

In the trade itself, major change took a little longer but, in 1988, the government did away with afternoon closing hours altogether.

On the very first day of this relaxation in laws, the then editor, Terry Cockerell, and I felt we needed to spend at least a couple of hours of the afternoon in the pub to record the event for posterity.

I well remember Terry turning to me and saying: “It’s all very well, but it’s not the same as being here illegally.” He was, of course, right. Without the thrill of breaking the law, it lost quite a lot of its appeal.

Then a year later, in 1989, came the bombshell that changed the licensed trade forever – the Beer Orders.

Suffering unfair arrangements

I won’t go into detail as this event is explained extensively elsewhere in this issue, but it had unintended consequences, spawning the creation of pubcos and ultimately leading to greater numbers of licensees suffering seemingly unfair tied arrangements.

Today, life for the modern publican is worlds away from the 1980s. The worst days and effects of the tie seem behind us.

Pubs have changed from being male-oriented purveyors of booze into being all-encompassing, family-friendly outlets, offering quality food, a vast selection of drinks and – increasingly important – a wide range of different entertainments.

And all of that is now delivered in comfortable, welcoming surroundings.

As for MA​, that too has changed out of all recognition. From a news-focused six-day-a-week publication that had its own sports desk providing form for followers of horse racing, it has turned into a true business-to-business multimedia operator with daily news on the web, myriad events, tranches of awards and still – the jewel in its crown – a print publication serving the licensed trade.

As I approach the end of my career with MA​, I feel proud and honoured to have played a small part in this metamorphosis.

Related topics: Events & Occasions

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