I welcome from the bottom of my heart the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. I congratulate him on his courageous decision in difficult circumstances.
I speak as a former journalist who worked on The Sunday Times for a number of years. I have never worked on The Times. I accept that the anxiety that most of us feel probably concerns the future of The Times. It would be a tragedy to allow that newpaper to close as a result of action that we took or advocated today, the consequences of which we had not thought through properly.
We should welcome Rupert Murdoch's willingness to buy Times Newspapers Ltd. The provisional sale agreed is the best that can be obtained in the circumstances for the newspapers concerned and for the reading public. The Secretary of State is right not to erect a major obstacle by way of a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
The argument so far has fallen under two heads. The first concerns concentration of ownership. It is urged that it is undesirable that a man or group owning a daily and Sunday newspaper at the popular end of the market should also own a daily and Sunday newspaper at what is generally termed the quality end. However, concentration of ownership is a feature of newspaper production today and has been for some time. It is necessary for the viability of newspapers. We could argue against having a number of newspapers concentrated in the present ownership, but the alternative would simply be to have fewer newspapers.
It is not correct to assert either that the loss of editorial independence is a necessary consequence of that concentration of ownership in Fleet Street today. I give three examples. I also worked for the Thomson group for a number of years. For some time past that group has owned The Times, The Sunday Times, a string of morning and evening regional newspapers and one regional Sunday newspaper. That is in many ways a more comprehensive dominance of newspaper readership than we are now discussing. However, at no stage has there been any question of the independence of the editors of those newspapers being compromised. For many years past the Mirror group has owned two Sunday newspapers at the popular end of the market with a combined circulation of about 8 million. I at present have a connection with the rival Express newspaper group, which owns two popular daily newspapers at roughly the same end of the market.
It is legitimate to express concern about editorial independence, which we all greatly value. However, Rupert Murdoch has given undertakings concerning editorial independence to the present owners and staff and, I understand, to the Secretary of State. Those who oppose my argument ask what guarantee there is that they will be kept. My right hon. Friend has announced pretty strict and entrenched conditions for approving the transfer. They are as stringent as any that could conceivably arise from an investigation by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
The second aspect of the argument underlies the first. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) concentrated on this aspect—namely is Rupert Murdoch the sort of man who we think should own The Times? That argument explains the sneers about whether page 3 nudes will appear in The Times. A certain degree of hypocrisy and snobbery is involved here. Arguments have been presented as being against concentration of ownership, whereas the real objection is to the personality of the prospective owner.