Times Newspapers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:44 pm on 27th January 1981.

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Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , Oswestry 6:44 pm, 27th January 1981

The right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith) made a fair point in his winding-up speech when he said that there was great concern and anxiety in all parts of the House about this matter. I understand and accept that. I should not wish to pretend otherwise. But, having come to the decision—I assure him that it was not an easy one—I am certain that it is the most appropriate one, given all the relevant facts.

Passions have run high during the debate, and much has been said about motive. The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) talked about a "pay-off for services rendered." "Rupert deserves a favour", said the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead). My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken), in a formidable speech, spoke about the Government being stampeded by the forces of commercial exploitation.

We can conduct the debate at some levels that are more productive than others. To conduct the debate in the thrall of the conspiratorial view of history does no sevice to the weighty measures that we have to consider. These decisions are difficult enough without their being compounded by mischievous judgments about motivation. I prefer to consider the issues on the mechanics of the decision and the way in which I have to satisfy myself and proceed to take subsequent action. That aspect was mentioned by both Government and Opposition Members.

Of course, in all parts of the House there would have been much satisfaction if the normal procedures of a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission could have been effected. The difficulties arose because of the balance that had to be judged and which, in this instance, I concluded required that an alternative conclusion should be reached. At the heart of the matter was whether it was possible to refer to the commission and not invoke the proposed closure plans that had been drawn up by the Thomson Organisation.

A number of people have talked cheerfully about calling bluff and counter-bluff. I am not sure that that would be a wise posture for anyone deciding the public interest in these matters. It was a question of trying to secure a referral. That is why I took up the question of speed. I must say that I accept the judgment of the chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It is not within my prerogative to tell him that he does not know his job and that if he were to think a little more sharply two or three weeks would be sufficient. Others might take a more robust view of the Government's role, but I do not believe that that is a wise or sensible way in which to proceed.

I discussed with the Thomson Organisation and with News International whether the deadlines could be extended to enable an eight-weeks' referral and I was told "No", after consideration of my request. The arguments that they advanced related to the substantial dislocation that would take place in the business if that happened, meaning, as it would, the renegotiation of redundancy arrangements. So the main question remains whether I was wise in my judgment that The Sunday Times was not an economic and going concern as a separate newspaper.

As I told the House, there is the question of the allocation of overheads—a matter that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West. The overheads were allocated between the papers by the company on the advice of its auditors. My Department's accountants considered the basis used and found it to be fair and reasonable. Secondly, there is the question of the losses that were assumed for the 1980 period. The figure that I quoted of £600,000 after allocation of overheads would rise to about £2 million, taking into account the remuneration of capital. So I have not understated the case.

Finally, there is the issue of the conditions that I attached. The sanctions that are implicit in the conditions that I attach under section 58 of the Fair Trading Act are contained in section 62(3) in particular. They are formidable sanctions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) asked about the extent to which editorial standing could be secured by those conditions. I could requote some of the arguments that I adduced earlier, but there is a more formidable participant in this debate than I, namely, Mr. Harold Evans, who said this afternoon: No Editor or Journalist could ask for wider guarantees of editorial independence on news and policy than those Mr. Murdoch has accepted and which are now entrenched by the Secretary of State. It has not been an easy decision, but I have made it, and without any hesitation I recommend it thoroughly.