Times Newspapers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:34 pm on 27th January 1981.

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Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland 4:34 pm, 27th January 1981

First, I declare two interests. I am chairman of an organisation called. Job Ownership Ltd., which exists to assist in setting up co-operatives. It was employed at one time by journalists of The Times to investigate the possibility of a co-operative owning that paper. Secondly, I am a trustee of The Guardian. Apart from a natural interest in a friendly rival—we are now about 100,000 ahead in circulation, but one never knows—we also have an interest in the printing.

Candidly, I am surprised by what the Minister said about The Sunday Times. All newspapers have been going through a bad phase. Perhaps The Sunday Times will not make much of a profit this year, but it is surely widely felt in Fleet Street that it will be a very good property for the future.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about overheads. Anyone involved in the industry knows that they can vary from year to year. The Guardian, for instance, has been printed in several places. The Sunday Times overheads may well be affected by any new arrangements that are made. So I am very surprised by what the right hon. Gentleman said about that paper. If The Sunday Times is a viable paper, it would appear extremely difficult not to refer the whole matter to the commission.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the safeguards and conditions that he has attached. As far as they go, they sound reassuring. But let us consider the appointment of the editor. The trustees of The Guardian actually appoint the editor. They do not merely approve someone who has been put up from somewhere else. They appoint him, just as they appoint other leading officials of The Guardian. The appointment of the editor is a very different matter from mere approval of what is suggested by someone else. It may be difficult to disapprove of a respectable man who, nevertheless, may not be the best man available.

Moreover, the trustees of The Guardian own The Guardian. A man once tried to borrow money from me on the ground that I appeared to own 2 million shares in The Guardian. I may say that he was disappointed. But the position is quite different from that of a mere advisory board or a non-executive director—and I have been a non-executive director of the board of The Guardian. That is quite different from being the owner of the paper.

I am sure that it is common ground that any of these newspapers will be viable only if there is a change in the attitudes and conduct of the unions involved. This, again, is very relevant to The Sunday Times. It is felt that under new management and ownership The Sunday Times will shed a lot of its overheads and also increase its productivity. Much of the trouble that has occurred in these newspapers is directly due to the unions—overmanning, restrictive practices, and the other troubles that they have brought upon the papers.

It should be said, too, that there are curious defenders of editorial freedom. One is the Leader of the Opposition, who was Lord Beaverbrook's editor—and Lord Beaverbrook was hardly a man notorious for giving his editors absolute discretion. When there was the possibility of the unions interfering with the editor, the Leader of the Opposition was not among those who defended editorial rights.

It is common ground that the practices of Fleet Street have to change. But there are other people in the field besides Mr. Murdoch. That aspect has not been sufficiently stressed. Much more could be said for the Minister's argument if Mr. Murdoch were the only person who was interested. But there are several others. I said earlier that an organisation with which I was associated had been asked by The Times journalists to investigate, for instance, the co-operative which runs Le Monde, which is run by a journalists' co-operative, as are some other French papers and several in other parts of the world.

I addressed a meeting of The Times journalists who later formed an organisation called JOTT. They formed an alliance with another organisation initiated by the editor, Mr. William Rees-Mogg, and backed by an extremely respectable board. It is not a lightweight, fly-by-night alliance. Surely anyone can see that a new departure in Fleet Street is badly needed. If the press is to be on a firm footing it cannot depend indefinitely upon tycoons, often from other continents, keeping it going by means of fresh infusions of money. That has been tried again and again.

Surely it is time we considered the possibility of associating journalists themselves with the running of their own newspaper. That is exactly what The Times journalists want to do. It would be a great pity if the House did not give them all the encouragement that it could.

I stress again that not only The Times general London journalists but the editor, Mr. William Rees-Mogg, and the editor of The Sunday Times, oppose the present proposition and have other views about The Sunday Times.

There is a body of respectable opinion which thinks that the two papers should be separated. Again, I quote the editors. Both Mr. Rees-Mogg and Mr. Evans think that the papers would be better separated. One may have different views about that.

If the Manchester Evening News were to be separated from The Guardian there would indeed be trouble. We are very glad to have the Rochdale Observer under our wing—it has had to be a rather large wing in order to accommodate that newspaper, and we have extended it—but there might be trouble if even that paper were to be separated, let alone the Manchester Evening News.

There is a lot to be said for some papers working together, but it is very difficult to ignore the view of the two editors concerned that the papers should be separated, and that they would get on better if they were.

The co-operative that the journalists have set up has, through its merchant bankers, put in a preliminary offer. The journalists are now pursuing it, filling in the details, and so on. They have the advice of a man who for many years was closely connected with the printing of The Times, and they are a most serious contender.

I am perfectly sure that it would do the press an incalculable amount of good if the journalists were more directly associated with the running of their papers. They are exactly the kind of people who ought to be constantly in touch, and not merely as members of advisory bodies. We have journalists who are among the trustees of The Guardian. If the journalists are prepared to put in their own money and their own time, and appoint their own people, nothing could be better for the press of this country, which very badly needs an infusion of new thought of that sort. It would be much the most hopeful way of getting real co-operation out of the chapels and out of the unions.

I refer again to the legal position. If the Minister is wrong, as I suspect he is, about the viability of The Sunday Times, the whole of his case falls to the ground. He should exercise his discretion in sending this matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. If he says that there is not time, that drives a cart and horse through the whole of our legislaton. If that is the case, anyone can get out of having a matter referred, simply by laying down a timetable. I do not think that the Minister can accept such a position. I am not suggesting that the Thomson Organisation is attempting to blackmail the Minister, but we cannot have nonsense made of legislation simply because people lay down a timetable and say that if something is not done by a certain date they will drop all their offers. We might just as well scrap the Act.

I ask the Minister to discuss the matter with the Thomson Organisation and indeed with Mr. Murdoch and to send it to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission so that the various possibilities can be discussed and a fuller and calmer examination can be made of what may be the best future for the papers.

Unless we do something about the present state of Fleet Street, what everybody in this House hopes will not happen will certainly happen, and there will be disaster for more and more papers. Here is an opportunity to associate the journalists—and conceivably the printers as well—in the running of their papers. At least that should be examined. At least, the House should send the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and thereby ensure that the best solution possible is sought in as calm a light as possible.