Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Stirling Consortium: TIE Ltd and the Thomson Connection

Canadian-born Lord Roy Thomson
Certain individuals and organisations involved in bringing television to the Commonwealth manage to escape widespread notoriety. So what was the role of the Thomson Organisation in proliferating British television material throughout the globe?

The Beginning

Back in the sixties, Africa was seen as a potential growth market for the future. Companies and even first world governments wanted to get in on the act. Businesses wanted to sell equipment, TV producers wanted to sell programmes and the British government wanted to spread positive propaganda via COI (Central Office of Information) prints which were either free or very near free. In parallel to this, Communism was still seen as a very real and present danger in the sixties. The concept of the dangerous Marxist was reinforced by Ethiopia's fall to Communism in 1974. 

As the seventies set in, the growth market that had been imagined never materialised. Prominent traditional forms of mass media such as radio and even newspapers, in countries with often poor literacy rates, were proving stubbornly hard to displace. However, Thomson Television International pioneered the management agent technique. This proved very successful as they became the biggest installer of television broadcasters around the world.

Many early television services in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia were focused towards education. Through distribution of COI prints and newsreels TIE (Television International Enterprises Ltd) had plentiful access to cheap programming which met the educational agenda for a lot of emerging Commonwealth broadcasters, and of course, by spreading positive British propaganda there was incentive for the government to give subsidies in order for Thomson and TIE to win contracts in what was part of ‘Operation Flavia’. In return, TTI/TIE provided access to the distribution network of what was at the time the largest Television operator in the developing world. A perfect ecology of business co-dependencies.

Stirling’s organisation was often part of a much larger consortium.  TTI (Thomson Television International Ltd) headed the consortium with American firms NBC and RCA as minor members. TTI formed in August 1962, with a capital of £100 as a wholly owned subsidiary of Scottish Television. In 1957, Canadian-born Lord Roy Thompson bought Scottish Television and over the course of his career went on to own over 200 newspapers all over the globe and had interests in printing, publishing and travels besides his television interests. Consequently, Thomson had the papers which could print listings and promote the stations. Thomson was also a driving force behind the formation of TIE, in 1959, when Stirling was short of funds after his exploits with Capricorn in Rhodesia and some gambling debts. In Smear!: Wilson and the Secret State by Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsey, it states: 

"Stirling also set up a commercial television company, Television International Enterprises, with funding from Lord Thomson of Times newspapers." 

Stirling’s involvement with Capricorn would cost his business the television contract in Rhodesia, but Thomson as part of the consortium that set up the original RTV station didn’t lose out. TIE eventually went on to win their first contract in Kenya with as part of a consortium that included Thomson. This would set a pattern for most of TIE’s later installations more on Kenya here: and here: As Stephen Dorril stated in his 2002 book (MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service), Stirling often employed Current or Ex-SAS in order that they could travel under the cover of TIE business but TIE was a legit business in itself:  

Setting up the Stations

Along came the Stirling/Thomson consortium promising tailor-made television stations designed to suit any budget that would eventually pay for themselves through the sales of advertising spots. Most consortium members would provide finance in order to win a contract. Minor members like NBC/RCA often got equipment deals, but unlike the French set ups, Thomson wasn't tied to any manufacturer and often used British equipment. TIE got programme supply but couldn't dictate programme policy (as well as selling advertising which was crucial) and TTI provided:
  1. Management services
  2. Finance and budgetary concerns
  3. Arranging credit with suppliers
  4. Design of the stations and field surveys for transmitters
  5. Hiring contractors and building the station
  6. Training and hiring of staff
  7. New governmental legislation and official internal procedures
  8. Collection of TV licence fee
Thomson became consultants for the term of the agreement (usually, a minimum of five years, but possibly up to fifteen) and withdrew a consultancy fee. Later on, TIE took more of a backseat as minor consortium member being asked to provide some finance and to focus more on programming supply and selling advertising spots, as well as producing programmes through their subsidiary TIE (Productions) Ltd. Obviously, without programmes to draw in viewers there would be no advertising revenue. TV sets were imported and rented. Some were in public places like cafes where people could congregate to view the new medium.  Local programming was expensive to produce and was never able to achieve the quality that was obtainable from the US and certainly not at the prices on offer to third world countries with programmes being available at a fraction of what they had cost the overseas broadcaster to produce. With local broadcasters often producing as little as 20% of their own programming, although there were exceptions such as the Ghana Broadcasting corporation who had set out to make 75% of their own programming and largely stuck to their commitment from the inauguration of their service right up to present day. Ghana has been an exemplary figure in Commonwealth broadcasting, but out of the ordinary none the less. Thomson as the world’s largest media magnet of the time was able to open doors for TIE through association and Stirling was well connected as it was. TIE supplied programmes to TTI stations it had helped set up but also TTI stations which it hadn’t on occasion as evidenced by the Pathe letter that names a certain bicycling chain here:

SLTV being built

Through the consortium, training could be sought either by TV station employees attending a training course in Scotland at the Thomson foundations highly prestigious Nuffield Institute or with secondment of staff from foreign broadcasters. The Thomson foundation was a joint enterprise between Thomson, the BBC, various independent UK TV producers and the British government that didn't just train staff but also produced COI films. Some of these were made by the students who were then allowed to take the prints back to their native organisation. Even Rediffusion stations like Malta and Canadian owned stations like Ghana sent their staff there.

So, Thomson had a financial interest in TIE; however, I don't think that was the only reason that TTI leant on TIE so heavily. TIE did offer a unique service after all. The one-stop-shop combination of providing programmes, at a competitive rate, to stations with genuine troubles sourcing the material and selling advertising spots to help finance the stations proved a very powerful draw to the ruling powers of nations that saw a television service as a prestigious achievement. The allure of Thomson’s ability to supply programmes through TIE and the connections that TTI could offer was so alluring that in the late-sixties the Japanese government heavily funded the NEC's (Nippon Electric Company) bid for Pakistani television, mainly to win the contract to supply the equipment, NEC then allowed Thomson a 15% stake in the Pakistan national broadcaster on a debenture basis in order to gain access to television programmes. The Italian government had offered Ethiopia a TV station for free! Many of these broadcasters would not have gotten off the ground for decades to come without the assistance that TTI’s consortium offered. However, the TV stations may have been tailor-made considerations towards fulfilling contracts seemed homogenised and without consideration for cultural requirements. 

The Customer is Always Right

As for TTI’s significance, they mean seem pretty unimportant for observers of the Omnirumour, but together they were a world-beating partnership. Thomson helped set up more TV stations across the globe than anybody. So, TIE's success in no small part to providing a service that benefited both sides of any agreement and helped raise them above their competitors. Thomson was the impetus and TIE was the vital life-blood of the stations. Comparisons can be drawn to the service which TIEA Ltd provides as the company doesn't just ask broadcasters to hand over old material for repatriation, or to intrusively snoop around their premises. 

"I know of no better illustration of the way reciprocal obligations can reach long and powerfully into the future than the perplexing story of $5,000 of relief aid that was exchanged between Mexico and Ethiopia. In 1985, Ethiopia could justly lay claim to the greatest suffering and privation in the world. Its economy was in ruin. Its food supply had been ravaged by years of drought and internal war. Its inhabitants were dying by the thousands from disease and starvation.Under these circumstances, I would not have been surprised to learn of a $5,000 relief donation from Mexico to that wrenchingly needy country. I remember my feeling of amazement, though, when a brief newspaper item I was reading insisted that the aid had gone in the opposite direction.Native officials of the Ethiopian Red Cross had decided to send the money to help the victims of that year’s earthquakes in Mexico City.
It is both a personal bane and a professional blessing that whenever I am confused by some aspect of human behavior, I feel driven to investigate further. In this instance, I was able to track down a fuller account of the story. Fortunately,a journalist who had been as bewildered as I by the Ethiopians’ actions had asked for an explanation. The answer he received offered eloquent validation of of the reciprocity rule: Despite the enormous needs prevailing in Ethiopia, the money was being sent to Mexico because, in 1935, Mexico had sent aid to Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy(“Ethiopian Red Cross,” 1985). So informed, I remained awed,but I was no longer puzzled. The need to reciprocate had transcended great cultural differences, long distances,acute famine, many years and immediate self-interest. Quite simply,a half-century later, against all countervailing forces, obligation triumphed." - Influence by Robert B. Cialdini

The Future

TIEA, like TTI and TIE used to, offers a vital and mutually beneficial service to its customers at an affordable price to help preserve the cultural heritage of nations that may struggle to otherwise afford it.
"Sub-Saharan Africa has been revealed as one of the fastest-growing buyers of UK-produced TV programmes in the past year, new research from Pact, in conjunction with BBC Worldwide and ITV Studios Global Entertainment, reveals. The UK Television Exports Survey 2014/15 (full PDF version below) showed that exports to South Africa and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa grew by over a third (35%) in the past year. In particular, sales of TV programmes grew by 21% from £8.4million to £10.2million." - See more at:

And, only forty years later than Thomson Television International predicted! TTI was dissolved on 22 Sep 2015.

Lord Roy Thomson (1894-1976) by Stephen Ward


Files from the National archives: DO 191/234, FO 1110/1724

Smear!: Wilson and the Secret State 
by Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsey 

Influence by Robert B. Cialdini

The Daring Dozen: 12 Special Forces Legends of World War II
By Gavin Mortimer

War plc: The Rise of the New Corporate Mercenary
By Stephen Armstrong

MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service