Times Newspapers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:43 pm on 27th January 1981.

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Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , Thanet East 4:43 pm, 27th January 1981

The vision of Mr. Rupert Murdoch being hauled off to Wormwood Scrubs in handcuffs obviously diverts my hon. Friend.

I am worried about the areas that those conditions do not cover. Giving Mr. Murdoch this great power in Fleet Street may have profound consequences for the future of newspapers such as The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. What sort of fair or unfair competition practices may be used? At present, Mr. Murdoch is fighting hard at the lower end of Fleet Street by paying the highest wage rates to union members. That is why they like him so much. Mr. Murdoch is the only newspaper proprietor who pays linotype operators £550 a week on average in order to compete fiercely with other newspapers. That sort of price war in Fleet Street at the top end will cause destruction and havoc among the serious newspapers who are not paying anything like those wage rates. That is just one example of an area that is completely unsafeguarded by the conditions that have been mentioned.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State used the threat of closure as his principal argument for agreeing to the deal. I believe that the Department of Trade was taken for a ride by the Thomson Organisation. The threat of closure, if a deal with Mr. Murdoch is not rushed through immediately, is empty. The Thomson Organisation has set an arbitrary and artificial deadline for selling The Times. There was no reason why Lord Thomson should not have set his five-month deadline from the date that Warburg issued the prospectuses for sale rather than from the date when he instructed Warburg to draw them up. That would have left ample time for a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Lord Thomson and Mr. Murdoch are putting a phoney pistol to the head of the Secretary of State and saying to him, in effect, "Stand and deliver without your reference to the commission". I believe that he should have called their bluff, because there were plenty of other serious alternative bidders in the ring. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to the journalists consortium, which had some serious finance behind it. But far more formidable than that consortium were the three major groups. Lonhro publicly made it clear, and makes it clear to this day, that it is available as a serious bidder, and it has put up a substantial financial offer, which is believed to be in excess, of the offer made by Mr. Murdoch. Associated Newspapers has also put up a substantial offer, as has Atlantic Richfield.

Having talked to the directors of those three organisations, I believe that the bidding process for The Times and The Sunday Times has not been fairly or openly conducted according to general commercial rules. The reason for this effectively unfair, prearranged package deal between Mr. Murdoch and Lord Thomson goes back a long way in the history of Fleet Street to disagreements over board appointments for Reuters well over a year ago. Since that date, Mr. Murdoch has been Thomson's favourite candidate, and from that stage every effort has been made to deliver the deal to him only.