You win some, you lose some. The announcement of the arrangements for the sale of the state-rescued Northern Rock makes it look very unlikely that any part of it will be remutualised – to the frustration of many Co-op Party-sponsored MPs.
Rather surprisingly, a different approach is being taken by the government in the Irish Republic, which historically has not seemed strongly committed to mutuality. Ireland’s finance minister Brian Lenihan has stressed that the rescue of its financial institutions will lead to a merged and strengthened financial mutual that brings together the old Educational Building Society, the Irish Nationwide Building Society and, probably, parts of Irish Life and Permanent.
Despite the frustrating lack of similar purpose in the UK, there is good news for the common ownership movement. The West Highland Free Press has become owned by a trust, whose members are its employees. Finance for the arrangement comes from the Baxi Partnership – which has supported many employee buy-outs – and Co-operative Development Scotland.
West Highland editor Ian McCormack told Co-op News that while “it is distinct from a co-op as such”, that “of course” there will be full employee involvement in the management of the company.
McCormack is full of praise for Baxi’s support for the project. “I can’t stress [it] enough,” he says. “They gave us lots of encouragement and advice – and finance, without which it would not be possible.”
West Highland has had a distinguished role as a radical voice in Scotland. Its founding editor, when he was a more radical figure, was Brian Wilson, who went on to become a Labour MP and energy minister.
Wilson fully backs the transfer of ownership to the ten staff away from himself and the other founding shareholders. “This is the right thing to do and the right time to do it,” he says. “We wanted the paper to remain independent while offering a great opportunity to the employees who have served it loyally. I am sure that the Free Press will continue to flourish on the basis of quality journalism, service to the community and sound commercial management.”
Wilson adds that he believes the Free Press becomes the UK’s first employee-owned newspaper – though this sounds an unlikely claim. But it is, without doubt, a significant step.
Paul Wood, one of the company directors, explains: “The successful move to employee ownership marks a significant achievement for the staff of the Free Press and apt reward for the hard work, skill and loyalty they have shown the company. It also marks a defining moment in UK newspaper ownership. At a time when the wider industry is in difficulty, I hope this sends out a clear message that there is a future for newspapers that provide quality and informed content of interest to its readership.
“The move to employee ownership sits easily with what I feel the paper stands for and leaves a legacy in our hands for the community and to all future employees of the company for generations to come.”
McCormack is clear about what has been the major success in the Free Press’s history – its campaign for land reform. The Free Press played a central role in the demands from islanders to take community ownership of lands held by absentee landlords, according to feudal tradition. With their help, several islands have had their ownership transferred.
The residents of one of those islands, Knoydart, earlier this year celebrated 10 years of community ownership. Knoydart is one of the most remote and beautiful parts of the British isles, which was bought by the Knoydart Foundation with the assistance of the Highland Council, the Chris Brasher Trust, the Kilchoan estate and the John Muir Trust, with a strong environmental protection mission.
Land reform at Knoydart, as with the Isle of Gigha, had the strong support of the West Highland Free Press, which campaigned against continued feudalism of the islands and highlands of Scotland.
“Our over-arching philosophy remains that summed up in the strap-line on our banner — An Tir, an Canan, ’sna Daoine (The Land, the Language and the People) — which we ‘borrowed’ from the Highland Land League,” says.McCormack. It is fitting that an organ that campaigned for the common ownership of land, now benefits from its own common ownership of its means of production.
For the Baxi Partnership, this is one more good news story of a viable business whose future has, hopefully, been secured by its intervention. West Highland Free Press is, in fact, is one of several employee buy-outs in Scotland facilitated by the Baxi Partnership and Co-operative Development Scotland – others they jointly supported include Loch Fyne Oysters and Woollard & Henry.
John Alexander, managing director of the Baxi Partnership, says: “The decision of the West Highland Free Press to make this transition highlights that employee ownership is a viable model for companies of all sizes. The key features of any deal are getting the right funding package and also ensuring the employees understand their new responsibilities — they are the company’s biggest asset and at a time when quality content is the key to a successful newspaper it is vital that the Free Press unlocks the potential that comes from allowing employees greater participation.
“We are pleased to have helped them solve the problem of ownership succession. If the founders had sold the business on the open market local jobs could have been lost and the whole dynamic of the paper changed. Ensuring local communities maintain their businesses and sources of employment is vital and it is something we are helping a further 26 companies to achieve across the UK.”
Let us hope not only that West Highland Free Press prospers, but also that it continues to promote various forms of common ownership.