Times Newspapers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:35 pm on 27th January 1981.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Geoffrey Robinson Geoffrey Robinson , Coventry North West 5:35 pm, 27th January 1981

I have nothing to say about the speech made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner), except that it cannot have helped the Secretary of State in his sad and difficult position.

In his first major decision the right hon. Gentleman has failed to stand up to the Prime Minister. That is the reality. I shall examine the facts and show why later. This is a straightforward pay-off for services rendered by The Sun. If it is not, let us see the facts and figures to show that I am wrong.

There are many aspects to this complex situation. Whether the level of concentration is 30 or 36 per cent., it is a major concentration of power. That is a matter for concern to all in the House.

One must also consider Mr. Murdoch's character. During my short career in the House I have always been prepared to say outside the House anything that I have said in it about any person. It is not a question of snobbery or scorn for Mr. Murdoch. Indeed, one could have more respect for him than for the Secretary of State. He is a buccaneering entrepreneur. He is unfortunately in the wrong business. I do not think that he is the sort of person appropriate to the newspaper industry. For this reason, his character is involved. Hon. Members have already commented on it.

I read an article in The Observer that was not a terrible criticism of the man as a man, but a terrible reflection on him as a man in charge of two major national newspapers. It said: Another senior Fleet Street manager, also an admirer —the article is obviously not against Mr. Murdoch— says: 'I happen to believe that guarantees of editorial independence simply wouldn't work—not because Rupert is not telling the truth, but because of the force of his personality and of the kind of people he has around him. Editorial independence often doesn't mean a great deal. Under Rupert, it would mean nothing. Because of the way in which he operates, acquiring The Times and The Sunday Times would make him the most powerful man in Britain.' Some of us might think that Rupert Murdoch is a very unworthy successor to Jack Jones. Rupert Murdoch's character is important and should be borne in mind, but, in itself, it is not a sufficient reason for reference to the Monopolies Commission, which is the subject of today's debate.

The heart of the matter was touched on by the hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken). I do not know how far back the cosy and collaborative relationship between the two parties to this sordid deal goes. I cannot altogether agree with the hon. Member for Thanet, East, because he knows far more about the subject than I do. I shall rely on his informed intelligence rather than on my uninformed reading of the situation.

It would seem that, at first, two separate sales were desired: one of The Times and one of The Sunday Times. The staffs and editors of both papers wanted separate sales, for reasons with which Labour Members and many Conservative Members would agree. I refer to variety and other well-known considerations. However, they seem to have fallen into a terrible trap. Lots of things can be done with merchant bankers. They put out a prospectus that made The Sunday Times appear very profitable and The Times a pretty hopeless proposition. I am not sure why they did that. At the time, the idea was to have two separate sales. Around mid-December the emphasis suddenly changed to a package deal, with the two sales taken together. Ruper Murdoch emerged as the only man who could do that. But they got into a muddle, because the 1973 legislation requires that the Secretary of State should refer the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on the basis of the prospectus figures for The Sunday Times. Hence there was a rather intriguing connivance between the two parties on how they could wriggle out of an Act of Parliament. That is what it amounts to—it is as serious as that.

In order to get round that problem the clever suggestion was made by the Secretary of State today which implies that perhaps the merchant bank's prospectus was not quite right. He did not say that the prospectus was fraudulent or misleading, but that it had been reviewed by the accountant in his Department. The conclusion of the accountant provides the only little loophole through which the Minister is trying to sneak. Today's decision is that the reallocation of overheads—none of which is so far public, any more than is the prospectus—shows that neither paper would make a profit over the next 11 months.