My days as a Press Lord with Sir Ray

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Ray Tindle, left, on the London-Brighton veteran car run

By ALAN FRAME

The Times ran a splendid obituary this week of Sir Ray Tindle, possibly this country’s least known but most successful newspaper proprietor. He was the antithesis of Maxwell or Dirty Dick Desmond, in other words he was decent, a sort of benign dictator. I write this with some knowledge and considerable affection because at one stage in the late ‘90s we were joint proprietors of a newspaper for US expats in Britain called simply, but accurately, The American.

The genesis of our association was this: After I left the Express in 1995 and following my foray into the Looking Glass world of Mohamed Fayed, I was asked to head up a 1997 general election campaign newspaper for the Tories, one which would go into every single home in England, Scotland and Wales. Not Northern Ireland because as we know politics there were, still are, of a very different hue. 

Incidentally I was also responsible for ghosting newspaper articles for John Major, the sitting prime minister, when he was asked to pen pieces for the regional press. Not being a natural Conservative despite (or maybe because of) a career almost exclusively on the Express and the Mail, I accepted and was well recompensed. These days I file this rather bizarre episode in my post Fleet St life under ‘John Major: My Part in his Downfall’.

Reaching 25 million households the length and breadth of the land with a one-off, full-colour tabloid required some planning as far as printing and distribution was concerned. Someone suggested Tindle Newspapers, which then had in the region of 125 weekly titles throughout England and Wales, all low circulation and advertising and local news led. Eventually there would be 200 and every single one was profitable, the sort of papers you would never have heard of unless you lived in the area they served. There was even one hotel in Brighton. Well, Hove actually.

I drove to Farnham in Surrey, birthplace of the Farnham Flyer as the flamboyant formula one champion Mike Hawthorne was known. I was to have lunch with Sir Ray in his private dining room at the group’s HQ. He was then 71 and spoke by using a finger to plug the hole in his throat following the removal of his voice box after throat cancer. Just as the actor Jack Hawkins had to do in later life. We immediately hit it off, not least because of a shared love of very old cars (he was a regular competitor in his 1904 Speedwell in the annual London to Brighton veteran car run which was later sponsored by Tindle Newspapers.)

The old boy was a great fan of Margaret Thatcher and the admiration was mutual – she knighted him in 1987. In many ways he epitomised her political philosophy; a grammar school boy who, after service as an officer with the Devonshires in WW2, bought the Tooting and Balham Gazette with his £300 demob pay. He went on to have an empire of local papers and some radio stations, and was proud that he hadn’t borrowed one penny and never went into debt.

As it happens, printing the Tories’ election propaganda, was beyond the capabilities of Tindle Newspapers and we turned to Northcliffe. But after lunch Ray called me over to a lectern and said: What would you do with this? The paper in question was The American and it looked exactly like all his other titles; very provincial and frankly boring and unattractive. So there and then we did a deal: We would be joint owners and, on my side, which included my Property Internet partner Neil Mackwood, we would be responsible for hiring staff, editorial, a radical re-design and page production. Tindle would sell advertising and would print and circulate. 

Hiring was done through an employment agency in London for post-graduates from the States and delivered great success. Our first editor was a brilliant Cornell graduate Molly Touger, niece of the distinguished film maker and writer Nora Ephron and without Molly we would have got nowhere. 

Then came another star, Rachel de Thample, now one of the country’s best known chef/food writers. John Hill designed a great masthead and we kicked off with an interview with the new US ambassador, Clinton’s man Philip Lader, who came to our re-launch party in Christopher’s, Covent Garden along with the Tindles and various other great and good and, no doubt, the not-so-good. It was destined to be a huge success, and it deserved to be…but it wasn’t. The expats simply seemed too busy earning vast sums in banking, broking and the law to have the time to read it. So after a couple of years we handed it back to Tindle Newspapers. My time as a press lord was over but it was fun while it lasted.

Ray Tindle who died on Easter Saturday aged 95, was a kind but essentially ruthless soul and I am glad I knew him. I said earlier that he was a benign dictator who made each and every decision. On one occasion when I was in Farnham I wandered into the yard behind the offices to see for myself just how far his rule extended. There, up to his neck in suds, was his group managing director washing and cleaning the Tindle stable of veteran and vintage cars, ready for the Master to drive! 

TIMES OBITUARY


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