OWJ Henderson obit: 'He had Murdoch's vision'

Maurice Neill pays tribute to Northern Ireland newspaper publisher William Henderson:

The passing of captain Oscar William James Henderson at the age of 86 closes an important chapter in Northern Ireland’s media history for 50 years ago he demonstrated the kind of commercial vision and dynamism not witnessed in the newspaper industry until the arrival of Rupert Murdoch.

Bill saw potential in commercial television, launched Northern Ireland’s first Sunday Newspaper and was among the first to invest in new printing technology. But he was repeatedly thwarted by petty rivalries in his ambition to unify the unionist Press in a single publishing house.

A passion for business and politics and an irascible nature was matched by a warm sense of humour and a strong sense of loyalty to those who worked for him. He knew most members of staff by their first names.

Bill was born in 1924 and raised at Hillsborough Castle, the official residence of the monarch, where his father, a navy man, was private secretary and comptroller general in the governor’s household. His brother Brum recalled a happy childhood. ‘We knew the King and Queen, stole wine from the Duke of Abercorn’s cellar and cigarettes from my father’s study.”

After Queen’s University and The Irish Guards, he joined the family publishing business as a trainee manager in 1947. Here he introduced new thinking to the unionist daily The News Letter and the brothers joined a syndicate that won the first commercial television franchise for Northern Ireland in 1958. Brum became general manager of Ulster Television and Bill launched a weekly television magazine The TV Post.

He became managing director of The News Letter in 1959 and oversaw further investment. News was introduced to the front page for the first time in 1961. It underwent changes in content after the appointment of Cowan Watson as editor in 1963 offering a more popular approach to both news and sports coverage. The culture change saw the popularity of the paper soar and it shed its elitist image.

Bill first approached the Cunningham family at the troubled The Northern Whig with a takeover proposal in 1960, after beating them in the battle for the regional television franchise. ‘I told them that the battle between us was exhausting and a waste of resources and put forward proposals for co-operation but I very quickly received a letter to say they were not interested. Pride would not let them accept.’

The sale of The Belfast Telegraph in 1961 gave the Hendersons a second major opportunity for expansion.

He recalled: ‘When I discovered Roy Thomson had made an approach to the Baird trustees I high-tailed it to Dublin to ask the Bank of Ireland for a £2 million loan and it was agreed after a break for lunch.

‘The following evening I went to Bangor Golf club to meet one of the trustees, Samuel George. He told me ‘you’re too late’. I then approached the Baird family because the deal was not yet done but Cicely Baird told me: ‘my father would turn in his grave if we sold the company to you.'”

The fortunes of The News Letter inevitably improved after the closure of The Northern Whig in 1964 and circulation rose from around 70,000 to more than 100,000. The company continued to expand and modernise launching Northern Ireland’s first Sunday newspaper The Sunday News in 1965. It became the first newspaper publisher in Ireland to install phototypesetting in 1972 and direct input by journalist in 1987.

It made an offer for the Morton Group of weekly newspapers in the early 1970s but there was a last minute change of heart as the province plunged deeper into violence and political turmoil.

Investment and expansion reached a peak in 1981 with the purchase of the scientific and technical publisher Universities Press at Castlereagh.

However with no end in sight to The Troubles, a series of industrial relations problems and expensive legal actions in the pipeline Bill Henderson opted to sell the business in 1989. It had been in the family for 200 years. A takeover bid carefully negotiated with Thomson Regional Newspapers, owners of The Belfast Telegraph, was blocked by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and he was forced to seek an alternative buyer finally selling to a consortium in Britain.

The Henderson family entered politics in 1898 when James Henderson was elected Lord Mayor of Belfast. His brother Trevor received a knighthood for his role in the unionist election victory of 1921 and his grandson Bill held a seat at Stormont from 1953 until 1958. He went on to chair the executive committee of the Ulster Unionist Council and accompanied a unionist delegation to the United States of America to give evidence to the Congressional Foreign Relations Committee on terrorism and civil disruption in 1972. He was still canvassing for the Ulster Unionist party at the age of 80. He combined careers in politics and industry with charitable work on behalf of the blind and disabled. He is survived by his wife Primrose, three daughters and seven grandchildren.

In 1934, in a funeral tribute to the proprietor of The Belfast Telegraph Sir Robert Baird, Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Viscount Craigavon summed up the unionist publishers’ considerable contribution to the creation of the Northern Ireland state: ‘The old oaks among us are falling fast.’ With the passing of Bill Henderson the last oak has fallen.

Maurice Neill is course co-ordinator for Newspaper Journalism at Belfast Metropolitan College

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