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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 am obliged for the assistance I am receiving from below the Conservative Gangway, repeating the point that I made at the beginning of my speech. We must wait to hear what the Secretary of State says about this. If the hon. Gentleman is right—he is on a good point, because I made the same point myself—there will have to be a reference to the commission. But I must safeguard against the possibility, remote though it may be, that the Secretary of State cannot produce a justification for not referring the matter to the commission. He may be referring it, but if he is not the hon. Gentleman will be as anxious to hear the explanation as I will.

Assurances about editorial freedom and integrity have been given to the national directors, as they are called, Times Newspapers. The assurances are in some ways satisfactory as they go. They talk about the independence of the newspapers, the control which is to be vested in the editor, the maintenance of editorial independence, the future sale of the titles, and a declaration that the newspapers are to be free from party political bias and from attachment to any sectional interests. I gather that Mr. Murdoch agreed to all those assurances without demand, qualification or query. He assented immediately to them when these matters were put to him by the vetting committee of the organisation.

But let us examine the assurances more closely and draw aside the veil contained in the assurances. First, the national directors are crucial to the operation of the safeguards promised by Mr. Murdoch. There are a number of national directors. They are very distinguished figures, such as Lord Roll, Lord Greene and Lord Roberts. I believe, these are four in all. Under the articles of association of the newspapers, there is a special class of shareholders—I think it is the Astor family—who have the sole right to nominate some of these national directors. Under the new arrangements that will be removed and the directors will be appointed by the owner of the newspaper, who will be the majority shareholder. Indeed, Mr. Murdoch will hold 100 per cent. of the shares if the purchase goes ahead. An existing safeguard which concerns the appointment of the national directors is being removed, not strengthened. Secondly, the appointment of the editor is of great importance. We know that there will be a vacancy in The Times editorship in the near future, but the appointment is important not simply because of the influence that the editor has on a newspaper but because many of Mr. Murdoch's assurances hinge on the role of the editor. It depends on the independence of the editor if the assurances are to have any meaning.

How will the editor be appointed? At present, the national directors are involved in his appointment. Under the proposed changes, which are part of Mr. Murdoch's assurances, these directors will not be involved in the appointment of the editor. Instead, all they have is a right of veto when a Murdoch appointee is presented to them, and they may reject him if they so wish. That is a different power from being involved in appointment. That is a diminution of an existing safeguard, not an additional safeguard.

These two matters alone indicate why we must look carefully at the assurances and why it is important that an expert body, such as the newspaper panel of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, applies its mind to investigating exactly what is involved.

With no disrespect to the existing national directors, it is possible that improvements will be made in that direction. There is a faint air of the Athenaeum about most of the present national directors.