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How Reuters convinced unions about Geneva HQ, by Michael Nelson

A Reuters plan to relocate to Geneva from London 30 years ago had nothing to do with internationalism but with British trade unionism, Michael Nelson, general manager at the time, said.

The company devised a stratagem to convince the unions that it would leave London, its headquarters since Paul Julius Reuter founded the business in 1851, if it could not get a deal with them during what became known as the 1979 “winter of discontent”.

The plan worked, and Reuters remained at 85 Fleet Street.

On Wednesday, the Financial Times reported in an article on Thomson Reuters’ decision to end trading of its shares on the London Stock Exchange: “If there is concern about the decision in London, it won't be on patriotic grounds. Reuters had been a global company for years before the Thomson deal (although according to a history of the group, Peter Job, managing director, dismissed a 1980 suggestion to relocate its HQ to Geneva as "pallid internationalism").”

The FT’s Lombard columnist, publishing Nelson’s clarification under the headline “Reuters’ Swiss solution”, said on Saturday:

“Thomson Reuters’ decision to scrap its London listing should not upset patriots because Reuters has always been a global company. But my parenthetical reference this week to an abortive plan to move the group’s headquarters to Geneva – mentioned in Donald Read’s history of Reuters, The Power of News – prompted a fascinating clarification from Michael Nelson, who was general manager of Reuters at the time.

“He says this had ‘nothing to do with internationalism but with British trade unionism’. In 1979, the year of the ‘winter of discontent’, Mr Nelson suggested Reuters build a data centre in the Swiss city as an alternative to London if a deal could not be struck with the unions.

“Union representatives were periodically flown out, given a tour of the empty building, ‘a good lunch on Lake Geneva’, and a warning ‘that if we could not get what we wanted in London, we would move to Geneva’.

“The ploy worked and, as Reuters expanded, the building was used to serve continental clients, eventually becoming the headquarters for Europe.”

Five years earlier, union officials and Reuters’ union representatives had been flown at company expense to study video editing in operation in New York. Kevin Garry, in charge of staff relations, “hinted that, if London refused to follow New York, the whole Fleet Street editorial operation might be moved outside the United Kingdom”, according to the company’s official history. Agreement was reached in mid-1975 but the introduction of video editing in London with journalists’ right to by-pass telegraphists and transmit news directly to line was delayed for technical reasons until the end of 1979.

Unions are again threatening strikes and (erroneous) parallels are being drawn with the situation 30 years ago, the FT said. But the story is a timely reminder of how much heavier the pressure was in the late 1970s; of the lengths employers went to in order to hedge their bets; and of how Reuters, a media pioneer in so many other ways, came close to showing the way forward to Eddie Shah and Rupert Murdoch. As Mr Nelson points out: “Geneva was not Reuters’ Wapping, but might have been.” ■

Financial Times