Aberdeen’s dirty tricks spark new OFT probe

A newspaper war in Aberdeen has escalated with the Aberdeen & District Independent accusing its rival, Aberdeen Journals, of using underhand methods in an attempt to put it out of business.

A newspaper war in Aberdeen has escalated with the Aberdeen &

District Independent accusing its rival, Aberdeen Journals, of using

underhand methods in an attempt to put it out of business.



The Office of Fair Trading has had to seek a second assurance from

Aberdeen Journals that it will not act in an anti-competitive manner

after it flouted an earlier promise given in August 1997.



The OFT acted after complaints that Northcliffe-owned Aberdeen Journals

offered discounts to advertisers if they agreed not to advertise in the

Independent.



Paul Robins, managing director of the Independent, has further alleged

that Aberdeen Journals has threatened to bar advertisers who do business

with his newspaper and has offered free full-page ads in the Herald &

Post as an inducement to pull out of the Independent.



’It took the OFT 14 months to get a first informal assurance and then

Aberdeen Journals took no bloody notice,’ complained Robins. ’If we

hadn’t got such good staff we’d have gone out of business by now.’



Robins has also complained to the OFT about predatory pricing. He

alleges that discounts as high as 95 per cent are being offered to

advertise in the Herald & Post. This he claims is uneconomic and its

purpose is purely to shut his newspaper out of the market.



The OFT is now insisting on a formal undertaking from Aberdeen Journals

but, to Robins’ disgust, has decided not to refer the matter to the

Competition Commission. The OFT is also canvassing opinion and has

placed ads in local newspapers. The deadline for response is 27

October.



If the latest, legally binding, assurance is breached, Robins is

threatening to take civil action in the High Court against his rival.

From next March, the OFT will have new powers to impose penalties of up

to 10 per cent of turnover, but Robins is sceptical that the OFT will

use them.



The Independent launched in 1996 as a free weekly in a city dominated by

Aberdeen Journals and its three titles - the morning Press and Journal,

the Evening Express and the Herald & Post, a free weekly. Robins alleges

that his rival’s dominant position is being used to try to take his

title out of the market.



Aberdeen Journals’ managing director Alan Scott declined to comment

while the OFT investigation was continuing.



Meanwhile, both newspaper groups are rumoured to be up for sale.

According to Scotland on Sunday, the owner of the Independent -

ex-Thomson Regional Newspapers’ executive Keith Barlow - is keen to sell

his title, while Northcliffe is rumoured to be keen on a swap deal with

Trinity involving Aberdeen Journals and the Belfast Telegraph.



Media Forum, p12.



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