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Times Newspapers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:48 pm on 27th January 1981.

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Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery , Honiton 5:48 pm, 27th January 1981

Great emotions are stirred when discussions take place in the House on the future of a national institution. These emotions become even greater when that national institution stands a chance of being forced into oblivion or out of business. The Times is such an institution, and these emotions have been apparent during the debate today.

I believe that nearly every hon. Member wishes to ensure that in some way The Times can continue to be published and its editorial independence safeguarded. How that should be achieved is open to much discussion and disagreement.

I came to the House today to argue that the conditions are not such as to make it legally essential for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Therefore, I congratulate him on having the strength to make the difficult decision not to make such a reference. The easy and popular decision would be to make the reference. The suggestion by some Labour Members that he has attempted to subordinate his decision to that of any other member of the Cabinet is beneath contempt. I have known my right hon. Friend for 18 years, and I have no doubt that this is his decision and the decision that he wanted to make.

Having said that, I want to examine the Fair Trading Act as it applies to ministerial responsibility. I was the Minister responsible for getting the Act on to the statute book, so perhaps I know a little about it. Newspaper mergers are different from any other mergers in industry or trade. They are the only instances in which, by law, references have to be made to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission for a report, except in two defined cases which are inserted as safeguards. It is those safeguards that are of the greatest importance for the House to consider. It is no good the House denying that they exist, or Labour Members saying that they should not apply. They do apply, and they are very important.

Under section 58(3) Where the Secretary of State is satisfied that the newspaper concerned in the transfer is not economic as a going concern and as a separate newspaper", and if he is satisfied that if the newspaper will continue as a separate newspaper the case is urgent, he may give his consent without a reference. That is what my right hon. Friend has done.

No one has suggested that that is not a correct decision in respect of The Times. Everybody believes that it is not a going concern and has not been for a long time. That brings us to the cause celebre, The Sunday Times. Before I heard the Secretary of State's speech—I listened carefully to that of the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith)—I had come prepared to argue that in the figures presented for the sale all the overheads of the Thomson Organisation had been put together and that a management allocation had been made—not surprisingly, I should have thought—to make the most favourable presentation.

Therefore, if one is to analyse on a purely management accounting basis—