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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 shall not be drawn into the question whether the management or the unions at The Times are more or less to blame for what has happened to Thomson Newspapers. There have been faults on both sides. We are concerned here with picking up the pieces and trying to extend, if possible, editorial diversity in Fleet Street. That is healthy in a democracy. That diversity will be further narrowed and diminished as a result of what we are asked to agree this afternoon. We are told that the vetting committee will be able to approve a new editor. The vetting committee will perhaps not have the right of appointment or the opportunity to see a short list but it will be able to say, by majority decision, whether it takes Mr. Murdoch's nominee or not. I am not sure that these national directors will be much more effective in that role than the vetting committee has been in looking at Mr. Murdoch's bid so far.

My last point concerns how it is that we can expect these newspapers, under the kind of editorship that they might be asked to accept, to report the news in our society in the future. We have to look at Mr. Murdoch's record. The hon. Member for Thanet, East has already looked at his record in Australia. Mr. Murdoch's multi-media concerns there have caused legal challenges and a large measure of public concern. I remind the House that when he gave undertakings which appear subsequently to have been breached in the Channel 10 inquiry, it was said by Senator John Button, one of the people at that tribunal hearing If one looks at what was said in the Channel 10 inquiry on oath…a cynic would perhaps be entitled to say as far as the tribunal is concerned that Mr. Murdoch's oath seems to be inferior to his credit.The Australian is supposed to be Mr. Murdoch's quality newspaper in that country. The staff of The Australian in the strike in 1975, to which reference has been made, addressed this remark to its proprietor: We can be loyal to The Australian, no matter how much its style, thrust and readership change, as long as it retains the traditions, principles and integrity of a responsible newspaper. We cannot be loyal to a propaganda sheet. Indeed, we cannot imagine that you would want on your staff journalists whose professional standards were so low. We cannot be loyal to those traditions, or to ourselves, if we accept the deliberate or careless slanting of headlines, seemingly blatant imbalance in news presentation, political censorship and on occasion, distortion of copy from senior, specialist journalists, the political management of news and features, the stifling of dissident and even unpalatably impartial opinion in the paper's columns."

That is what happened in what is supposed to be the quality paper owned by Mr. Murdoch in his home country. I do not want to have to see, in few years' time, as a result of a lapse of concentration by this House and an increase of concentration of power in Fleet Street, open letters of that sort addressed by the staff of The Times or The Sunday Times to their new proprietor. I remind the House that the newspaper The Australian has had three editors in the past year. Mr. Murdoch's editors come and go pretty quickly all round the world.

I believe that Mr. Murdoch was in the editorial room of The Sunday Times, a newspaper that he does not yet own, on Saturday night, looking at the editorial and putting in a factual correction. I am not saying that he was distorting the record but he was there, altering the galley proofs.

I should like to examine what was said by Mr. Roy Thomson—as he then was—when he was taken to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1966. At that time, Mr. Thomson had about 7 per cent. of the press circulation. We are now dealing with a proprietor who has 30 per cent. plus. Mr. Thomson said, about relations with his editor: Denis Hamilton and I have worked together since I appointed him editor of The Sunday Times in 1961, and we frequently talk together. I have views on various questions and I make sure he knows them, but I never see them appear in the paper unless he agrees with them. We discuss things, and he knows that on certain matters I am very concerned in my mind that this is the thing and so on, but he is editor and nothing of my views goes in the paper unless they are also his views. I ask the Minister to tell me now if there is any newspaper owned by Mr. Murdoch in the world today—there are a great many of them—where that is the relationship between the editor and the proprietor. I submit that there are none. I also submit to the House that Lord Thomson, or Mr. Roy Thomson as he then was, was asked a number of other questions before the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1966. He was asked, for example, whether he respected the independent political slant of The Times. There are hon. Members on the Labour Benches who would laugh at the notion of The Times as an independent newspaper. It attempts, however, to be a paper of record. I am not saying that it is always very successful. It attempts to be less than the narrow partisan propaganda sheet that some other newspapers are.

Has Mr. Murdoch given any undertakings to this Government that The Times will continue to be a paper of record and that it will attempt to continue to take an impartial look at the news? If any hon. Members have doubts about whether one should be concerned about the use of newspapers owned by Mr. Murdoch, I refer them to the annual report of the Australian Press Council, report No. 4, adjudications Nos. 74 and 75, where complaints of the consistent partisan bias of Mr. Murdoch's newspapers were upheld by the council. What undertakings have been requested on this score? I do not think that very many have.

My conclusion is not that the The Sunday Times and The Times are presently perfect. I do not think that they are. The Times in particular is often far from that. I am not saying that Mr. Murdoch has a cloven hoof that other potential proprietors do not show, or do not have. I am saying that this whole operation has been designed to circumvent the Fair Trading Act. That strengthens the case for submitting it to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The fact that many hon. Members, like many journalists, do not want to voice their fears about Mr. Murdoch makes it all the more imperative to do so in this place.

The future of the Thomson papers is more important, in my view, than a quiet life for the Thomson management or a secure life for the Thomson printers. They know only too well how they got where they are now. Unless Mr. Murdoch's claims and promises are tested before the commission, the Fair Trading Act will be seen to be a dead letter. We might as well write a blank cheque for Rupert Murdoch and write it on the back of the legislation, because that is all that the legislation will be worth.