Times Newspapers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:02 pm on 27th January 1981.

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Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North 5:02 pm, 27th January 1981

I am sure that he has had one or two sleepless moments in thinking how he could come to the House to face the criticism so legitimately applied by the hon. Member for Thanet, East.

We have to decide three questions. They have already been touched upon by hon. Members on both sides of the House. First, is Mr. Murdoch the only bidder for Times Newspapers Limited? Is he the only proper, legitimate or possible bidder? If he is, should he not have his bid referred to the commission? If, as we are contending, there should be a referral, what questions should properly and legitimately be asked by the commission?

Let us consider the motion of Mr. Murdoch as the only valid bidder. There has been some dispute in the debate already about the profitability of the Thomson papers and whether the admitted financial difficulties of The Times, which has cost the Thomson family so much money over the past 15 years, should be allowed to colour the position of the group. Is there the possibility of profitablility for The Sunday Times, for example, when separate overheads are considered? I am informed—this relates precisely to the Warburg documents that we have not been allowed to see—that it is calculated that The Sunday Times could be profitable, even when separate overheads are considered by the end of 1981, and that it could be making a profit of about £7 million in the financial year up to the end of 1982.

That is why it is an attractive proposition. That is why, if an individual were to go to Thomson newspapers to buy The Sunday Times, he would have to pay more for it than the £12 million or £14 million which Mr. Murdoch will have to pay for the entire group, with his eye on the principal booty of The Sunday Times, that extremely profitable newspaper.

The right hon. Gentleman told us that his accountants, using the Warburg figures, or figures supplied by Warburgs for the purpose of the debate, could not recognise that The Sunday Times could be calculated as a profitable paper. Has he considered that issue through the eyes of the bidders—through the eyes of the many organisations who would like to buy the The Sunday Times?

If The Sunday Times can for a moment be extracted from the package and can be shown to be a newspaper that has actual or potential profitability, I submit that the Minister has no option but to refer The Sunday Times, at least, to the commission. If that title has profitability, what are we to say of the other bids that have been submitted?

It was an exciting departure in British journalism when the present editor of The Sunday Times and his staff put together a bid. The backing that it received made it almost copper-bottomed. Bearing in mind the possible conflict of interests, it is unfortunate that the editor and his staff went to the merchant banker, Morgan Grenfell and Co. Ltd. to put the package together, since it acts for Mr. Murdoch in another capacity. It has acted for him in some of the dealings to which the hon. Member for Thanet, East referred. An example is the Ansett case in Australia, which caused a great deal of condemnation of Mr. Murdoch.

The fact is that the editor and his staff have a proposal. The proposal has never been put to the vetting committee. They have been in the same position as the other bidders, including the commercial names that have been bandied about in the debate. They have never had the opportunity of matching the timetable that was set out specifically to preclude referral to the commission and to ensure that the package of Times Newspapers Ltd. could be sold to one buyer.

We have been told that it was not until early January that Mr. Murdoch emerged as the favoured candidate. The decision to sell was announced on 22 October. The deadline will expire in March. I do not believe for a moment, nor should any other hon. Member, that Mr. Murdoch appeared as the favoured bidder for Times Newspapers Ltd. some time in January. I believe that discussions were going on for much longer, and that the deadline was set when the debate had eventually to be held in the House and when a Minister, if one could do so with impunity, could say what the right hon. Gentleman said this afternoon.

If the right hon. Gentleman asked the commission how soon it could carry out an investigation and it said eight weeks, why did he not go back to Times Newpapers Ltd. and ask "Why cannot you extend the deadline for three or four weeks?" When we calculate how much the Thomson Organisation stands to lose if the entire enterprise collapses as against what it will make with the additional four or five week extension that is required while the proper scrutiny of Mr. Murdoch is engaged upon, can it seriously be suggested that the Thomson Organisation and Times Newspapers Ltd. would not have extended the deadline? Of course they would, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows that. I pause to enable the right hon. Gentleman to tell me that he asked the Thomson Organisation for an extension of the deadline. It seems from his silence that he did not ask for very much.