Times Newspapers

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

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

I believe that the figures relate to The Sunday Times itself. Other figures were given in respect of The Times, I think in the same set of information which was supplied by Warburg's. Presumably they were there to show potential purchasers the likely profit ability of both newspapers. For the next few years The Times will continue at a loss, but on Warburg's projections emerges with a small profit by about 1984 or thereabouts, but The Sunday Times goes into profit.

Warburg allocates what it calls group fixed costs in respect of both newspapers. I do not know how it does that, but that is the information which was given to potential purchasers and it seems to show, at least prima facie, that it is a profitable newspaper. That is the understanding of those people. I think that the argument is that one keeps them together because the profitable might support the unprofitable, or some such argument. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to deal with that point.

Of course, the profitability of newspapers varies according to the economic scene, and they are not particularly buoyant at present, but the projections are that matters will improve significantly. Whatever is the meaning of the statutory responsibilities on the Secretary of State, he cannot reasonably claim that he does not have a discretion in this case to refer it to the MMC. He does, and it is my case that he should exercise it in favour of referring.

There have been a number of objections to that. First, it is said that it would be foolish to refer this to the MMC and the special newspaper panel which exists to deal with such cases because there is not enough time for a report to be made, and that the deal would be frustrated, to the prejudice of employment and the ultimate loss of the newspapers.

I have a number of comments to make on that argument. First, the time scale involved—with 8 and 14 March as the deadline dates—was not decided by uncontrollable events or the hand of fate. It was determined solely by the Thomson Organisation, which put that time scale forward in October last year. It would be not unreasonable to ask the Tomson Organisation to alter the dates. It would not greatly inconvenience it to extend the time by a few weeks, if necessary. Secondly, it is clear from what has been said by the parties to the proposed purchase that some time must be allowed for negotiations with the print unions. Mr. Murdoch has said that that was a condition put on the purchase by the Thomson Organisation.

I believe that it is possible for the Secretary of State to refer this matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission with a request that he receives its report fairly quickly. I do not think that there is a great deal of detail to be investigated, for most of the facts are known and published. But it would be possible, perhaps, for the commission to take a week collecting the facts—one assumes that the parties would be willing to co-operate—and another week for it to prepare the report. That means that the report could be available within the time scale allotted for these discussions with the trade unions.

I understand the concern about employment and the concern that these newspapers should continue as valuable institutions of our public life. But that concern can be safeguarded because the Act says, about a time limit, that the commission must report within three months. Three months is given as a maximum, which may be extended only by the Secretary of State. There is no legal impediment on the Secretary of State to ask for a quicker report. When Governments want to move speedily they move with tremendous speed. In this circumstance, that would be an acceptable solution.