Times Newspapers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:51 pm on 27th January 1981.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North 3:51 pm, 27th January 1981

The right hon. Gentleman, with his usual fairness, expresses his assent to that proposition.

The relevant part of the Fair Trading Act is section 58. I want to describe what I believe to be the Secretary of State's duty under that section, because I think that a major part of this debate may concern the question of how he proposes to discharge the responsibilities that the House has laid upon him.

Under section 58, it is unlawful and void for a newspaper merger to take place unless the Secretary of State approves it and in turn the Secretary of State must refer it to the MMC. However, under subsection (3) there are two ways in which he can avoid referring it to the MMC. One is where he is satisfied that the newspaper is not intended to continue as a separate newspaper, as in the case of the Evening Standard. In that case, he has no discretion: he must not refer it to the MMC. However, I think that we can all agree that that does not apply in the present circumstance.

But there is another circumstance. If the Secretary of State is satisfied that the newspaper concerned is not economic as a going concern and a separate newspaper and there is a matter of urgency involved, he may choose not to refer the matter to the MMC. That is important, because I should like the Secretary of State to explain, if he is not going to refer this to the MMC, how he satisfied himself that The Sunday Times in particular was not economic as a going concern. I believe that he can refuse to refer the matter to the MMC only if he properly satisfies himself about that.

The position of the two newspapers appears to be different in this respect. The Times, at least for the present, appears to be making a loss, although I understand that some predictions have been made as to the possibility of its being profitable in future. Indeed, I believe that that is what Mr. Murdoch himself says.

But the position of The Sunday Times is quite different. Certain information was given to potential purchasers of both newspapers by Warburg's, the bankers who were employed by the Thomson Organisation. I understand that in appendix 11, table 2, of Warburg's report some projections and figures were given about the future performance and profitability of The Sunday Times. In 1980, I understand, there was a small profit. In 1981, it is projected, there will be a profit of £4·8 million; in 1982, of £11·9 million; in 1983, of £13 million.

In those circumstances, I believe that the Secretary of State cannot find it easy, I believe, to satisfy himslf that The Sunday Times is not economic as a going concern and as a separate newspaper, which seems to me the statutory obligation which he has to meet. I think that the House will listen with interest, if he decides not to refer the matter to the MMC, to how he justifies that decision. I hope that the Secretary of State will deal with that question when he speaks.