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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

I hope that when my hon. Friend was a reporter for Times Newpapers he was more careful in his attribution of quotes.

The Warburg-Thomson plot thickens and becomes rather more murky, especially when we look at the question of the prospectus that was put out by Warburg at the beginning of the process, and which is highly relevant, if not crucially important, to the question of the reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. This is, of course, a secret document that was issued in confidence to each bidder. This morning I tried hard to obtain a copy, both from Warburg and Thomsons, but was refused permission to see one. Perhaps the fact that it denies us access to that document is an interesting sidelight on Thomson's attitude to Parliament's right to safeguard public interests. It was quoted to some extent by the Shadow Secretary of State for Trade, the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith), who summarised some of its contents.

I understand that that circular stated unequivocally that The Sunday Times was a profitable newspaper and that it would become still more profitable. It went into some detail. The House has not seen those documents, and it is no wonder that they are regarded as somewhat embarrassing, and that there is no enthusiasm on the part of Thomsons to make them public. It must be highly relevant that one section of the Fair Trading Act 1973 states that the transfer of a newspaper with a circulation of over 500,000 must be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that the newspaper is not a going concern. That word is in the singular. That section of the Act does not refer to newspapers in the plural or to groups of newspapers. The Secretary of State's decision this afternoon and his refusal to implement that section of the Act may be tested by the courts. I believe, on the basis of a conversation that I had today with the managing director of Associated Newspapers Ltd., that his company is likely to test the decision by means of an injunction. That is what he indicated. If his company does not do so, I am sure that another member of the public will issue a writ of mandamus, saying, in effect, "We demand that the Secretary of State fulfils his obligations under the Act." When that happens, the differing views of the companies' legal advisers can come out into the open.

I am sorry to be so critical of my right hon. Friend. However, I cannot sit back and watch the House being stampeded by the pressures of commercial exploitation into giving parliamentary blessing to a newspaper merger that concentrates monopoly powers in the hands of one organisation to such an extent that I believe it to be totally contrary to the public interest.

Let the last words lie with Mr. Murdoch. In an interview published in an American magazine called More in 1977, Mr. Rupert Murdoch was quoted as a saying: England has eight or nine major daily newspapers. I would not be allowed to buy another successful daily newspaper there. The Monopolies Commission would say 'No'. That is quite correct and proper. Out of the mouths of babes, sucklings and newspaper proprietors, cometh forth great truth. I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may well have acted in an incorrect manner. That is why I shall vote with the Opposition tonight.