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It is for the reasons that I have just explained, that I do not believe that I am entitled to take a view on future prospects upon existing experience.
There is no doubt that if a new owner does not take over these newspapers they will cease publication in March. This, of course, is the area in which, I agree, some Labour Members believe that that simply is not likely, and that Thomson would disavow its statement on this matter, but I must say that I am satisfied that the conditions of section 58 (3) are met in this case and I therefore have to decide whether to opt for a reference or to give my consent.
I approach this decision with an established preference for newspaper mergers to be examined by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Newspapers are special, and their ownership is a proper matter for public concern. The impending closure of the newspapers clearly poses a real problem. The 1973 Act requires that the commission must complete its investigations within three months unless the Secretary of State, because he is persuaded that there are special reasons, gives the commission a further period of three months. I am not empowered to require a report in a shorter period.
The right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North suggested that we should have a quick investigation, and he did so again from the Opposition Front Bench today. I am sure that he does not want a superficial study, but is looking for a proper examination of the issues.
The chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was asked whether, notwithstanding the three months allowed for an investigation of a newspaper merger under the Act—already a short period compared with that for other MMC inquiries—he could complete an inquiry in a significantly shorter period. Sir Godfray Le Quesne, fully recognising both the urgency of this matter and its importance, considered this question with some care. In view of the possible scope of the inquiry and the statutory requirements governing the contents of the report, Sir Godfray concluded that if the commission was to conduct an adequate inquiry he could not promise a report in under eight weeks—still a significant reduction on the period allowed in the Act.
I am conscious that in some quarters there is a feeling that the Thomson closure timetable could have been arranged to allow time for an MMC investigation. I can only say that the request for my consent to the transfer of the titles to News International was received on 23 January, and on the best possible timetable an MMC report could not have been available before The Times and The Sunday Times had ceased publication.