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The right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith) introduced this debate in measured terms and reminded us that the House is in a very real sense a custodian in a debate such as this.
The holding of this emergency debate and the interest expressed both within this House and outside it attest the important place which Times Newspapers have in our national life. Their continuance and the manner of their continuance are issues of genuine public concern.
I believe that the general desire is to see The Times, The Sunday Times and the various supplements continue in publication and preserve the traditions of independence and editorial freedom for which they are rightly renowned.
Thomson Organisation Limited, the existing owner of the newspapers, has made it quite clear that it will not support The Sunday Times after 8 March or The Times after 14 March. The objective of continuation which I have described requires a willing purchaser, ready and able to devote considerable financial resources to the newspapers, and at the same time ready to accept the traditions to which so much importance is attached.
Thomson itself established a "vetting panel" comprising the editors of the newspapers and the national directors, and that panel has concluded that News International, controlled by Mr. Rupert Murdoch, is a suitable future owner of these titles. That is the view of the existing owner—taking account of the opinion of the editorial staff on the vetting panel. The law requires, however, that such an acquisition should be subject to my consent.
In the Fair Trading Act 1973 there is a presumption that all proposals for newspaper mergers should be investigated by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. However, in section 58(3) the Act provides for certain exceptions. Where the Secretary of State is satisfied that the newspaper concerned in a transfer is not economic as a going concern, and as a separate newspaper, and where he is satisfied also that if the newspaper is to continue as a separate newspaper the case is one of urgency, he may give his consent to the transfer without a reference to the commission.
Thomson Organisation Limited, in applying for my consent to the transfer of The Times and The Sunday Times to News International, made its application under that provision. I had, therefore, first to satisfy myself about the two conditions of the section—whether The Times and The Sunday Times, separately were each economic as a going concern, and whether the case was one of urgency. If I was so satisfied, it was then for me to decide whether I should still require an investigation by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission or grant my consent without a reference, if necessary with conditions.
My accountants have carried out a detailed investigation into the financial position and future prospects of both The Times and The Sunday Times. They have looked at the figures for the first 11 months of 1980, which are the latest available. On the basis of their advice, I am satisfied that under present ownership and under present conditions—what the Act requires me to look at—neither newspaper was economic as a going concern and as a separate newspaper. In the case of The Times, there can be no doubt about the position. But even in the case of The Sunday Times, after allocating to it a reasonable share of Thomson's fixed overheads, I am satisfied that that paper, too, is uneconomic.
Is the case, then, one of urgency? Thomson's announced in October last that because of continuing heavy losses it had decided to sell its Times titles—the three supplements, which are not newspapers for the purposes of the Act, as well as The Times and The Sunday Times—by March, and it sought bids by 31 December. Arrangements for closure of the newspapers—including the serving of redundancy notices to staff—were set in hand.
There is no doubt that if a new owner does not take over these newspapers they will cease publication in March. I am conscious that some people will regard this as Thomson bluff.