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Last Days at The Publican

Pete Robinson
10th March 2012



Last year The Publican magazine, a licensed trade publication, closed after 36 years. Pete Robinson was a regular blogger for The Publican and reflects on its sad demise...


So where did it all go wrong for The Publican?

Back in 2005 when a fresh-faced Hamish Champ joined the magazine's staff as prestigious City Editor it was an excellent career move with the added bonus of occasionally getting paid to drink beer. In fact he couldn't have struck luckier if he'd landed a job testing Durex with Britney Spears.

The Publican had just been acquired by United Business Magazines for a gutsy £21-million and was going from strength to strength in a booming industry.

A year later in 2006 Hamish gleefully reported UK pub turnover was about to hit a FIVE-YEAR-PEAK with continued growth forecast until at least 2011.

As we entered 2007 the City's enthusiasm for the pub sector remained insatiable. Pubco shares were described as "the darlings of the stock market" with eager investors snapping up Punch shares at £14 each - yes, FOURTEEN POUNDS!

Following the gradual erosion of the 1990s the turnaround in this industry since the new millennium had been nothing short of remarkable. Then along came July 1st and the smoking ban.

As a somewhat pious ex-smoker Hamish Champ argued openly against my pro-choice stance and heavily criticised my somewhat disrespectful comments on the government-sponsored charity Cancer Research UK.

In turn I would warn him that as CRUK directly funds ASH, and both had conned the nation into the draconian smoking ban, then it could one day cost him his job. Alas, Hamish should have listened because eventually it did.

To be fair The Publican didn't overtly support the ban, but it certainly didn't oppose it. I guess any magazine tries to reflect the mood of its readers and with little sign of protest in the air it naturally assumed the apparent trade viewpoint of meek, resigned acceptance.

If the Publican was guilty of anything it was blind, unbridled optimism. It's as if there'd been so much good news to report over the previous few years it was unwilling to dwell on the bad.

And bad it was, arse-wipingly bad.

Towards the end of 2007 the industry was clearly in deep trouble. The 'New Breed' of non-smoking drinker had failed to materialise and the long exodus of the pub trade's life blood, its rank-and-file customers, was already underway. Pub insolvencies were already up 600%, a number that would TREBLE in the following year to EIGHTEEN TIMES former rates, while those prized industry shares were nosediving into the cellar.

Yet at the time you'd never have guessed any of this by reading The Publican. The main consensus was how smoothly and successfully the ban had been implemented. Every 'industry ‘spokesman’ and his dog queued up to insist their business had been totally unaffected by the ban and each was reported in equal, laborious measure.

I'm sure the smart pubs and wine bars were doing okay around the Publican's plush offices on London's trendy South Bank, and perhaps still are. However this only served to insulate the editorial staff from the grim reality sweeping across the rest of the country everywhere north of Watford.

In one 2007 Publican article I remember a smoking-ban 'official' assuring worried publicans that "it normally takes around 3 months for lost trade to return".

Eh? WTF? I was staggered such a fatuous comment went unchallenged. This eejit had no right nor evidence to make such an unsubstantiated statement yet it was reported as if it were gospel.

By 2008 the post-ban carnage could no longer be ignored. But as the rapidly plummeting trade stats settled into a terminal spiral of descent the Publican's editorial opinion switched to naively blaming 'bad' pubs which had been unable to evolve.

'Embrace' the smoking ban we were told. Just do food and everything will be okay. Up your game, open a library/post office/cinema in your pub. Set aside a lunchtime for expectant mothers or an evening for transvestite grandads.

Just offer 'excellence' then watch the customers come running.

How do you 'evolve' to a 33% to 80% drop in takings? Even if it were possible for the country to sustain 40-odd-thousand foodie pub-restaurants, for many it was madness to invest a fortune in pricey catering equipment when local competitors were offering £2.99 two-for-one deals.

In truth the customers we've lost don't want excellence. Most pubgoers couldn't give a toss about fine dining, health emporiums, creches, drop-in centres or gymnasiums. They simply want to be treated like adults. They want their old pubs back, warts an' all.

During the summer of 2008 the recession kicked off as the 'credit crunch' and that was that. At last everyone had something to blame it all on despite pubs trading well throughout all previous recessions.

And that's pretty much the story up to today. The pub game is still up shit creek and if they had a paddle they'd be rowing even deeper into the murky waters of complete denial.

In 2010 The Publican's own survey showed 78% of licensees, many of them desperate to save their ailing businesses, were demanding the smoking ban be amended to allow separate indoor smoking rooms. This was backed by an F2C survey published in the Morning Advertiser which found the figure virtually identical at 79%.

So why wasn't more made of this? God only knows.

Instead the Publican threw its weight behind three campaigns - to fight the proposed mandatory code of practice, 'axe the tax' (duty and VAT cuts on pub drinks) and hike up supermarket prices, none of which stood a cat in hell's chance of success.

Even if they'd all been won it would still make no difference to today's unpopularity if every pub sold beer at one quid-a-pint. Customers are still abandoning the pub and we've been unable to stem the flow. We never will until the industry admits to the problem that dare not speak its name, that huge grinning elephant sitting in the room.

I can understand why the Publican felt compelled to 'talk up' the terrible state of the industry or risk its advertising revenue. But how many times were we forced to read about a few pence rise in Punch shares when they always fall back to around 60p within days as nimble investors took their profit?

Everything reported was so sugar-coated my fillings ached just reading it. One would have assumed recovery was just around the corner. It's not. Trust me on this.

Over the last few years I've made many predictions in the Publican which, although mocked and derided at the time, turned out to be uncannily accurate. One of the earliest of these was the demise of The Publican itself. Let me tell you in all sincerity it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to be proved correct once more.

Simple logic really. With around 20% of our 2007 pub stock either closed down or converted for other uses the trade no longer needed two major titles. The rival Morning Advertiser had already scythed its staff to the bone some time back so was already at its fighting weight.

Hence William Reed, the MA's parent company, was able to snap up The Publican for a paltry £1.5 million while UBM took a £19.5 million hit on the deal.

After 36 proud years the Publican was killed off by the smoking ban as surely as it will close TWO THIRDS of our nation's pubs over the next few years.

And what of Hamish Champ, the smoke-hater's friend? Poor Hamish now edits Plastics & Rubber Weekly, a mind-numbingly boring industrial rag based in glorious downtown Croydon. The only excitement comes on Thursday afternoons when the new paperclips arrive. A hotline to The Samaritans comes as a perk of the job.

Could things have been different? Maybe, if we'd all pulled together in the early days. But we were forced to dance to the greedy Pubco's misguided tune, straight into the gates of financial hell.

If, as a trade, we can get our act together before the end of 2013 and, with the benefit of hindsight, win a fairer deal on the ban then a near-full recovery could be a realistic prospect.
After that it's probably too late.

So it's a nostalgic farewell to The Publican magazine. Let's pray it's not goodbye to the Great British Pub.

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