Changing times means the Government needs to rethink the future of The Times

  • By Lord Ashcroft
  • 14 December 2012
  • Media

As the editor of The Times, James Harding produced a lively, award-winning newspaper as well as enjoying the admiration and support of his staff.

However, this week he learnt that to survive in the post every editor also needs the confidence and backing of his, or her, proprietor – particularly when that person is Rupert Murdoch, the world’s most powerful media mogul.

I discovered some months ago through senior sources that Mr Harding was on borrowed time – for various reasons he had lost Mr Murdoch’s confidence to an extent where the relationship could not be repaired. After that, there was only going to be one outcome – Mr Harding’s departure. He resigned on Wednesday.

These are difficult times for any newspaper editor, quite apart from the repercussions of the Leveson report into the culture, practices and ethics of the Press. Circulations are tumbling, advertising revenues are in decline and no-one has yet discovered a model for how to make money from high-cost, online national titles in the digital age.

Mr Harding’s position was made all the more difficult because, during his five years at the helm, The Times’s circulation declined faster than some of its rivals – by some 40 per cent, from 670,000 a day to just under 400,000. On top of this, losses at the paper are now said to run at nearly £1 million a week.

Mr Murdoch, a very sprightly 81 years young, hasn’t got where he is today by ignoring the “bottom line”, but there were other reasons, too, that made Mr Harding’s job increasingly precarious.

Mr Harding took – some would say admirably, while others might say foolishly – a robust, independent line when reporting on the hacking story at the News of the World. 

However, as I reported in my blog of 9 February 2012, he then, embarrassingly, appeared on the front page of his own newspaper after he was recalled to the Leveson inquiry to explain when he had been forced to apologise to a High Court judge, Mr Justice Eady, who had been misled by the paper’s lawyers in relation to the hacking of a police officer’s email account.

Furthermore, I have little doubt that, under Mr Harding’s editorship, The Thunderer, as the paper was once known, became a little too “off message” for its proprietor’s liking. Andrew Neil, the broadcaster and Mr Murdoch’s editor of The Sunday Times for more than a decade, summarised this perfectly when he said earlier this week that the paper had become “way too liberal [and] wishy-washy for Old Rupe.”

So what is the future for The Times? Mr Murdoch clearly wants to make savings by wholly, or partly, integrating The Sunday Times and The Times into a seven-day operation.

The winner here is likely to be John Witherow, who could eventually become the editor-in-chief of both titles and with a more hands-on role at The Times, knocking it back into the sort of paper that his proprietor would be prouder to own.

During Mr Witherow’s 18 years as editor of The Sunday Times, I have had my occasional ups and downs with him and his paper. Regular readers of my blog will know, for example, that I did not think his Insight team handled the whole Peter Cruddas story with credit – and may yet rue the day that its “exposé” forced him to resign as co-Treasurer of the Conservative Party.

However, Mr Witherow is a talented editor and a safe pair of hands. Crucially, I know that, unlike Mr Harding, he does retain Mr Murdoch’s full confidence.

Yet, the future of The Times is complicated by undertakings that were given by Mr Murdoch to the Government more than 30 years ago. When John Biffen, then Trade Secretary, approved the purchase of The Times and The Sunday Times in 1981, he insisted on a legally-binding undertaking designed at protecting the independence and quality of the newspapers.

Out of interest, last night I dug out a copy of that typed, five-page agreement, which was drawn up to avoid the need to refer the purchase of the newspapers by News International to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

One of the conditions of sale is that The Times and The Sunday Times remain as separate newspapers. Another is that editors are not appointed or dismissed without the approval of the majority of the ‘independent national directors”.

Indeed, before announcing his (enforced) resignation to his staff on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Harding met with the independent national directors to inform them of his decision to step down.

It was reported yesterday – accurately I suspect – that executives from News International have made informal approaches to the Government to seek permission to restructure the two titles into a single, seven-day operation. News International clearly hopes to make significant savings – with inevitable job losses – by merging the two newspapers.

The 1981 agreement was drawn up when well-run national newspapers were big, profitable beasts with huge reporting staff worldwide. Now, even as much leaner operations, they are fighting for their very survival.

Governments, like big business and other walks of life, need to move with the times. I see no reason why this shouldn’t involve a re-think of an out-dated agreement sooner rather than later in order to secure the future of The Times for many years to come.

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