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My point of order arises out of today's Question Time. In the past, at Welsh Question Time there have been present hon. Members who do not represent Welsh constituencies, and they have often been called to contribute to our proceedings. It will not have escaped your notice, Mr. Speaker, and that of others observing the proceedings of the House, that a large number of hon. Members representing constituencies outside Wales were present for Welsh Questions today, including, of course, the Secretary of State for Wales.
A question of constitutional propriety is raised upon which I should like you to rule, Mr. Speaker. Is it to be the practice of the House that the will of the Welsh people, as expressed at the general election, will not be reflected in the balance of hon. Members called during Welsh Question Time? This is an important democratic principle, to which I ask you to address yourself.
When considering the representations made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Thomas), will you hear in mind, Mr. Speaker, what English hon. Members might feel about Welsh or Scottish Members intervening in strictly English matters, and weigh up the propriety of English Members taking a healthy and, I hope, welcome, interest in matters Welsh, Scottish or, indeed, Northern Irish?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you also bear in mind, when considering whom you call at Question Time, the fact that I had 11 times as many votes as the Plaid Cymru candidate in the Rhondda? I received about 35,000 votes, whereas the Nationalist received about 3,000. Does that mean that I will be called 10 or 11 times more often than the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Thomas)?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been watching with interest the various manoeuvres of parties trying to receive privileges and the masterful way in which you have handled them. I would very much appreciate your guidance, Mr. Speaker. If the 49 Conservative hon. Members for Kent, Surrey and Hampshire, who enjoy majorities of a totality and depth that makes the Scottish representation of the Labour party look as fragile as blown glass, were to join together and call themselves by some suitable title, such as "the well managed alliance", or something of that nature, would we be able to claim the sort of privileges claimed by these other splinter groups?
As this is the only opportunity for questioning Welsh Office Ministers until late October, and as 30 per cent. of our valuable time today was wasted by the activities of Nationalist Members — and the Nationalists make up the only party that has succeeded in cutting down Welsh parliamentary time, especially when hon. Members wanted to ask questions about hospital waiting lists — is there any procedure for extending Welsh Question Time, or, if those hon. Members repeat their antics, for the matter to be referred to the Select Committee on Procedure?
I shall deal with the matter now. I think the House accepts that this is the United Kingdom Parliament and that every hon. Member should have a right to put questions to departmental Ministers, even though they may be Scottish Ministers or Welsh Ministers. However, I think the House accepts also that the Chair should give substantial precedence to Welsh Ministers at Welsh Question Time, and I have done exactly that today. The interesting suggestion of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) is unlikely to be achieved!
I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the decision of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to give his consent to the transfer of the ownership of the Today newspaper from Lonrho plc to News International plc; notes that Today was seriously loss making and manifestly uneconomic as a going concern; further notes that unless the transfer had taken place Today would probably have ceased publication immediately with he attendant loss of over 500 jobs; and congratulates the Secretary of State on ensuring the continuation of Today as a separate newspaper.
I am sure that there is quite a wide measure of agreement among right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House about the ownership of newspapers and the sort of newspaper industry that we would like to have. I am sure, also, that the majority of right hon. and hon. Members, and of the public, would like to see a wide diversity of titles and choice of reading matter. We want to see newspapers and the media open to a variety of arguments and we would like to see many owners of newspapers. We do not wish newspapers to fall into too few hands.
In recent years there have been more hopes and encouraging signs about the future of Fleet street and of the British newspaper industry than the reverse. I look back to the start of the Todaynewspaper, which was one of the most encouraging events to occur in Fleet street. Eddie Shah introduced new technology into Fleet street and he was a new proprietor, opening the first new national title since the establishment of the Daily Starsome time before. Following the opening of Today,there were disputes at Wapping and elsewhere that gave hopes of bringing to an end the restrictive practices, overmanning and excessively high costs that had been the worst problems for Fleet street and the greatest inhibitions to a wide range of ownership over former years.
The Daily Starbegan to be printed in 1978, and Today opened in March 1986. Since then, Sunday Sport, The Independent and News on Sundayhave been attempting to enter the newspaper market. The current state of Fleet street suggests that there is more prospect of more titles coming along and more prospect of diversity of ownership than most would have thought possible a few years ago.
There is a tendency to assume that consideration of the newspaper industry involves London, and London only. A concentration of ownership has been taking place, and one example of that is Mr. Murdoch's takeover of TodayIn addition, the origination of the Daily Expressand the Sunday Expresswas lost to Manchester this very weekend. The flight from Manchester is something that the Minister should be acutely conscious of and worried about.
I agree that my remarks about the need for as many titles as possible, as wide a diversity of opinion as possible and as wide a diversity of ownership as possible apply as much to the provincial press as to the Fleet street daily press. I believe that the principles that I have been underlining reflect the underlying purpose of the Fair Trading Act 1973. The purpose of that Act, which followed on previous pieces of legislation, was to try to guard against an over-concentration of ownership in Fleet street. I remind the House that the basic requirement of the Act is that the consent of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is required for all newspaper mergers which either cause a newspaper proprietor's total circulation to rise to 500,000 or more average paid-for copies per issue or add further to a circulation of this size.
The Act envisages that, generally speaking, this consent will not be given until the Secretary of State has received a report on the matter from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It follows that Parliament in 1973 accepted, and the Government now accept, that the provisions of the 1973 Act recognise the significance of newspaper mergers. The Act requires any report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on.such a merger to say
whether the transfer in question may be expected to operate against the public interest, taking into account all matters which appear in the circumstances to be relevant, and, in particular, the need for accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion.
Again, I am sure that those objectives would be endorsed by all of us. However, we all know that, over the years, particular problems have always arisen when a stage of crisis is reached for a loss-making newspaper—and Fleet street has had more than its fair share of those.
There is usually no doubt about the need to refer to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission a question that arises over the future of a title when the newspaper is reasonably viable and plainly has a long-term future, and when there is time for a considered view to be taken in the public interest — over weeks if not months—about whether over-concentration of ownership will result. However, the legislation of 1973, and the policy that has followed it, have not been able to suspend or disregard basic economic common sense in the newspaper industry. Troubles occur, although sometimes with more force than others, when a newspaper gets itself into serious economic difficulty.
I spoke earlier about titles coming on to the market, but there is still a somewhat worrying decline in the total extent of newspaper readership in the country, and it is a difficult market to get into to achieve economic viability. Profitability is really the best guarantee that a newspaper has of its independence, and the best basis that a Secretary of State has for referring to the MMC any possible mergers or changes of ownership. There is no doubt that, in dealing with a newspaper that is making serious losses, the Secretary of State needs wider powers. lie cannot rely on a stark policy of saying that everything must be referred in all circumstances.
The legislation upon which all this is based recognised that at the time. It was anticipated in 1973, and also in the preceding legislation. The legislation had to recognise that circumstances might arise in which an MMC inquiry, lasting up to three months—that is the period that the Act allows, and it can be extended for a further three months—would be undesirable because of the pressures of the case. The 1973 Act therefore contains specific exceptions to the usual requirement that the Secretary of State should have a report from the MMC before he makes his decision.
The exception that is relevant to the transfer of Today is set out in section 58(3) of the Act, which provides that consent may be given without a report from the Commission being required if the Secretary of State is satisfied on two matters. First, he must be satisfied that the newspaper being transferred
is not economic as a going concern and as a separate newspaper".
Secondly, he must be satisfied that
if the newpaper is to continue as a separate newspaper, the case is one of urgency.
If the Secretary of State is satisfied on both those points, he may give consent without a report from the commission. Parliament had to allow that, and in some circumstances it is plainly necessary.
The hon. Gentleman has moved to the next logical step in the case. I have set out the two grounds that the Secretary of State must have before he is able to consent to a transfer without reference to the commission. The House must then quite properly consider the basis on which the Secretary of State was satisfied that both those conditions existed. If the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) will allow me, I shall begin by dealing with what I consider to be the simplest and least contentious aspect on which the Secretary of State was satisfied when he had to consider whether the newspaper was a going concern.
Unfortunately, because Todaywas launched with considerable good will behind it—the paper has been heavily loss-making since its inception. I do not believe that it achieved anything like the circulation figures for which it hoped and which were necessary for its viability. That led to its rapid transfer from its original owners, to News UK, a subsidiary of Lonrho, in 1986. Since then the losses have continued. My right hon. and noble Friend was provided with evidence that satisfied him that Todaywas not economic as a going concern and as a separate newspaper. When I was questioned in the House last week, on the day of the decision, it seemed to be common knowledge among a large number of hon. Members that Todaywas incurring losses of over £30 million a year or over £500,000 a week. It was losing money hand over fist.
The second point, which has just been raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow was whether there was urgency if the newspaper was to continue as a separate title, and on what basis would my right hon. and noble Friend be able to come to that conclusion. The losses that I have just described are at the heart of the matter. Lonrho had concluded that these losses could no longer be allowed to continue. When he took his decision, my right hon. and noble Friend had before him a resolution of the Lonrho board to the effect that, in the absence of his consent by midnight on I July, no further financial support would be given to the subsidiary company, that redundancy notices would be issued forthwith and that Todaywould forthwith be closed. A resolution by a public company is the only way in which one can communicate. It is its only authoritative statement of policy.
I shall give way in a moment. First, I want to conclude my arguments on this point.
The resolution and the application that were before my right hon. and noble Friend do not mean that we accepted that it was midnight or nothing. No deadline was imposed on Ministers. The Secretary of State had to decide whether this was an urgent case. The resolution of the Lonrho board was only one piece of evidence, though a rather crucial piece of evidence, in deciding that question. We had to ask whether there was a serious risk of that paper folding if a reference was made. That involved asking questions about the resolution, although we had no reason to doubt it. Also, we had to ask whether Lonrho would just accept the losses while waiting the necessary weeks or even months while the reference was made. Furthermore, was there a risk of News International going away and of the deal folding while it waited for a decision? In merger and takeover decisions that is not unknown.
The evidence was the history of the newspaper, which had been loss-making from the start, the scale of the losses being incurred and the fact that the proprietors had closed Today on Sunday a short time before. To have said on that evidence that there was no urgency in the case would have been a mere gamble. Hon. Members who lightly say that the company's resolution ought to have been ignored and that its bluff should have been called ought to remember that the independence of the title and a large number of jobs were at risk.
There were two potential buyers, Maxwell and Murdoch. If the paper had folded, it would have been worth nothing. While it was in being it was worth £40 million. It is nonsense to say that Lonrho would have shut down Todayunless the deal was done that day.
Mr. Maxwell had already publicly declared that he had withdrawn from the attempt to purchase Today, but more arises from the hon. Gentleman's question than that. I ask the hon. Gentleman and the House to look at the position of the Secretary of State when faced with this application. The paper was undoubtedly losing money hand over fist and the proprietors had decided to close it. They had already closed the sister title. It is not the Government's duty to look for other buyers. The Government cannot act as a marriage broker in such cases. The hon. Gentleman should think through the implications of his question. If he is saying that the duty of the Government is actively to look for buyers, to weigh up one buyer against another and to encourage buyers, it would lead to the danger of far greater political patronage and politicisation than would otherwise occur.
On the other hand, had there been other applications—and we have received none, other than the one that came in last week — there was nothing to stop the Secretary of State from granting each application. Therefore, had a series of alternative buyers wanted to acquire the newspaper, several applications might have come to the Secretary of State, he might have decided that the terms of the Act were satisfied in all cases and he might have given his consent to them all. But so far as we are aware today, and so far as anyone was aware at the time the Secretary of State made his decision, only one application satisfied the terms of the Act, and there was a clear indication of urgency that the title was about to close.
A variety of representations reached the Secretary of State, but there was certainly no other application. I do not recall that the solicitors said in terms that their clients were still interested in buying the newspapers. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should bear in mind that in circumstances of this kind a variety of other people, including competitors of one or other of the proprietors concerned, are inclined to come rushing in with representations of one kind or another. There were some newspaper stories of one alternative purchaser who wished to buy the title at an earlier stage—although he, too, pulled out—in order to close the paper down and to use the presses for his own title. As of now, my belief is that Mr. Maxwell has publicly withdrawn. There was one application before the Secretary of State, and urgency arose.
Surely the crux of the matter is that, to test the credibility of Lonrho's position, the Minister was obliged to make a relative calculation of what Lonrho stood to lose by selling and by closing down that night. If the Minister is not prepared to make that relative calculation, what he has said today amounts to a charter totally to ignore the terms of the legislation, and any two multinational companies, irrespective of how rich and powerful they are, can come forward with an ultimatum and everything on the statute book, can be swept aside.
The Secretary of State must decide these matters on the evidence before him and on the best evidence that he can get. There is no one method of testing the credibility of evidence. The Secretary of State must ask whether this is a case of urgency. I have no reason to doubt the credibility of Lonrho, but Lonrho's resolution, although extremely compelling, did not settle the matter. It did, however, make sense in all the circumstances. It had been known for months that Lonrho had been losing interest in the ownership of the title and was losing a great deal of money. The risk of a reference would have given rise to further weeks and months of uncertainty, during which a prospective purchaser might go away or the losses incurred might become unsupportable. It was looking at the circumstances as a whole that led the Secretary of State to say, "There is urgency here. A reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission would probably do more harm than good and would run the serious risk of closing down the title altogether." That is the basis upon which he decided that he had discretion under the Act not to refer.
I entirely agree. After the exchanges last week, I have tried to keep the temperature down, and I hope that I shall succeed in doing so. Last week we saw quite nakedly that the Opposition's objections arose because they disapproved of the politics of the person who had acquired the title. The history of other references and non-references under the Act shows that that is the principal concern.
Considerations of that kind played no part in this. I have shown how, looking at the two considerations that he was obliged to look at under the Act, there was absolutely no doubt that the Secretary of State was justified in deciding that Parliament had given him a discretion not to refer in this case. It is only a discretion. He could still have decided to refer or not to refer—and I am in no doubt that he was legally entitled to refer.
When one looks at the wider considerations and whether the risk of the title closing was worth carrying in this case, one sees that there are other relevant considerations. Todayis a comparatively new title. There was no such newspaper 15 months ago, so it is a desirable newcomer on the scene that is threatened with extinction, and not a long-standing one about to go. It had already nearly folded once. It got into immediate financial crisis and had to be transferred to Lonrho very shortly after it opened. So far as I can recall, nobody demanded that any reference be made at all—and I have looked through the Official Report.Under the terms of the Act, with The Observer already owned by Tiny Rowlands, it could well have been referred, but to the best of my recollection nobody asked me to refer it.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) that, for some reason best known to themselves, Opposition Members were less worried about Tiny Rowlands than they were about Rupert Murdoch. This was a new title, it had already nearly folded and it had only achieved a comparatively small circulation. The trouble is that at the moment it commands about only 2·5 per cent. of newspaper circulation. That is a relevant consideration when one looks at the impact that this has on the possible monopolistic concentration of ownership. It is also relevant that one looks at whereabouts this newspaper is in the market, because it is not correct to look at all newspapers as though they are all the same, as though they are all read by the same people and as though they are are all aiming at the same market. Mr. Murdoch owns The Times andThe Sun, which are not exactly in the same part of the market. This newspaper is in the middle of the market, where News International does not at the moment have a newspaper.
The right hon. and learned Member mentioned this last week. If the question of the part of the market to which the paper applies, in which it deals, or in which it is placed was a relevant factor in whether the Secretary of State was to make the decision that he did, may we be told whether question was put to Mr. Murdoch about whether he intended to keep the paper in that sphere of the market or, if it was put to him, whether anyone on the face of the planet would believe what Mr. Murdoch said in reply?
At the moment, there is no doubt that it is in that part of the market where it is in competition with the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, which are owned by different companies and different proprietors. We did not question Mr. Murdoch about that or about News International. If News International, in its commercial judgment, decided to move into a different part of the market and to go into competition with one of its own titles, I suppose that is a matter for it to decide. I would have thought it unlikely that it would do that, but that is not a matter for me.
What was being acquired was a newspaper with a comparatively small circulation that is plainly seen by all those who look at journalistic affairs to be in competition with other peoples' newspapers other than with News International's. That was relevant when deciding whether the discretion should be taken advantage of by the Secretary of State, coupled with the very real risk that if he stepped in and made a reference, the paper, in the course of the next few weeks, if not at midnight as stated by the owners—and I have no reason to doubt what they said in their resolution—was likely to close and 500 jobs lost. That result would have done nothing for the freedom of the press, diversity of ownership or anything else. The Today newspaper would merely have closed, there would have been one title less and the readers' choice and the position of Fleet Street would have been further weakened.
Is it not difficult to understand the argument coming from Opposition Members that competition in newspapers would have been enhanced if Mr. Maxwell had been able to acquire the title? I understand that his group already controls more than a quarter of the British press, by circulation, whereas News International, although it has a larger share, controls about one third. I cannot see how competition would be enhanced by allowing Mr. Maxwell to have 28·5 per cent. rather than 26 per cent., even if that is what he wanted, and there is no evidence that he did.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. There is more than a streak of hypocrisy in those who claim that somehow it is desirable that Today is owned by Mr. Maxwell rather than by Mr. Murdoch if they are pretending that it will be in the public interest rather than their own narrow political interests—[Interruption.] If the Opposition are not saying that, I would be interested to know who the other purchaser might be. I think that Mr. Maxwell is the preferred choice of the Opposition.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman made the same point the other day about the 500 jobs that were at stake. I pointed out then that on that very day 750 jobs were to be lost at News International on Merseyside. If he was keen on saving jobs on Today, why was his Department not equally keen to save the 750 jobs in my constituency when representations had been made to the Government about the matter? We are talking about the same employer. Why were the Government not concerned about those jobs and our people in Liverpool, when they are now arguing that they were concerned about the 500 jobs on Today?
I do not criticise the hon. Gentleman for persistently making representations about his constituency. However, he knows full well that the Government cannot intervene in commercial decisions such as that on Merseyside. It would do his constituents no good and would be of no consolation to them to find that 500 jobs had been lost somewhere else as a result of a totally separate decision. If the hon. Gentleman will listen carefully, he will realise that I am pointing out that had the Secretary of State taken the decision that the Labour party is pressing on him, his act would have brought about the loss of those 500 jobs because the newspaper would probably have folded during the course of the reference. Therefore, in all the circumstances, I believe that the outrage felt by the Opposition last week, and the apparently mild discontent felt by them this week, is not shared by the employees of Today, who do not seem to oppose what has happened in any way. I note also that Mr. Bill Jordan of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers is quoted as being pleased that Today has been saved as an independent voice. Indeed, I am sure that all fair-minded people will have recognised that my right hon. and noble Friend took the right decision and has made possible the continuation of Today as a separate, independent newspaper.
As I have said, it is certainly the desire of all of us that we have a competitive newspaper industry, open to a variety of owners with a variety of opinions, with freedom of expression and accuracy of reporting. The prospects for that are steadily getting better than they have been for many years. Access to the media is opening up to many more people, not least when one looks at television and radio, which are outside my sphere. The coming of new technology, such as satellite television, and so on, means that it is getting steadily more difficult for anybody to have a monopoly of reporting, news potential and opinion. Thanks to the end of restrictive practices, it is getting easier to open newspapers with the use of new technology. However, it is still difficult to open newspapers and win a place in the market. Difficulties can arise when one gets into trouble.
As far as I can see, the Opposition's interest in the press appeared to be to back up vigorously the opposition to new technology and support those trade unions that were doing damage to Fleet street and inhibiting the readers' choice a short time ago. Outrage is expressed by them when they feel that the political opinions of a newspaper are not to their liking or they have taken a particular dislike to a proprietor. The Government cannot be influenced by considerations of that sort, and we are not. My right hon. and noble Friend has been guided by the public interest and I invite the House to agree that he has protected the public interest by his decision.
I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:
deplores the decision of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to permit the further concentration of newspaper ownership without any reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and his acceptance of the arrogant deadline on his decision imposed by News International plc; and profoundly regrets that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry so readily abandoned his responsibility to secure the public interest.".
It is most unsatisfactory that the Secretary of State who took the decision is not accounting for it to the House. That is one of the unfortunate features of having a senior Secretary of State in another place. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did his best, but he is a sorcerer's apprentice on this matter. He took the line, I suppose quite predictably, that the Secretary of State took a quite reasonable decision and that only unusual people on the Opposition Benches, motivated by synthetic outrage, would find something to cavil at in the decision.
I shall quote from today's Financial Times which is hardly a newspaper unversed in the ways of the industry or notably sympathetic to the Opposition. It said:
Lord Young's haste to comply with an artificial deadline conjured up by a couple of entrepreneurs was both naive and undignified. He should have called their bluff and mocked the acumen of businessmen who value an asset at £38 million today and nothing tomorrow. A reference to the monopolies commission was necessary and almost certainly would not have led to the closure of Today."
That judgment might be prayed in aid when one is considering the evaluations.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will no doubt have read or had drawn to his attention the editorial of 2 July, the day following the decision, in The Independent. It said:
On Tuesday evening, Tiny Rowland, chief executive of Lonrho, and Rupert Murdoch, US citizen, proprietor of national newspapers accounting for a substantial proportion of the British market, arrived at a deal under which Mr. Murdoch would acquire the ailing Today newspaper. As a term of the agreement they had the effrontery to give Her Majesty's Ministers just one day to declare that the transaction need not be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, as is normally the case … Yesterday afternoon, less than 24 hours later, Lord Young, Secretary of State, duly obliged. Thus a Government freshly elected to office with a large majority is bent to the will of two formidable entrepreneurs.
That is not some judgment emerging from the spite that is assumed to exist on the Opposition Benches.
If that was not enough, perhaps the Secretary of State should have paid some attention to the views of the Press Council, set up to consider these very matters. The chairman of the Press Council, Sir Zelman Cowen, said:
There could hardly be a more obvious increase in concentration than acquisition of a fifth national newspaper by a group which already owns four.
Newspapers which are for sale will often be vulnerable newspapers. To accept a tight timetable set by the owner and the potential buyer if that precludes proper examination by the Commission makes a mockery of the Fair Trading Act.
The decision on Today following the similar one when The Times and The Sunday Times changed hands six years ago signals that newspaper buyers and sellers need not have a Monopoly Commission inquiry if they do not want one.
That is not the view of some synthetically induced sense of outrage. I am correct in thinking that the chairman was appointed by the present Government.
The UK Press Gazette, a specialist magazine dealing with the newspaper industry, said:
Right up until the moment of sale Lonrho executives were insisting that Today was shaping up nicely, that they were prepared to invest to continue the improving trend and that they believed it had a bright future.
Unless this was the sales pitch of the used car salesman trying to talk up the price of an old banger then we must believe that there was no likelihood of Today being closed. Lonrho chief executive Tiny Rowland's sudden conversion to the gloom scenario seems born of little else but a need to offer Lord Young some reason not to refer the sale to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
So much for the notion that somehow we have dreamed up unreasonable objections to the Secretary of State's decision.
Let us look at the facts. The Secretary of State drew our attention to the provisions of the Fair Trading Act 1973 and correctly said that two conditions had to be satisfied before the Secretary of State could clothe himself with a discretion not to refer. One condition was whether it was economic as a goingconcern, a matter of acutecontroversy in relation to the takeover of The Times and The Sunday Times six years ago. I think that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will accept that he has to be satisfied on both counts, namely that he believes also that the case is one of urgency before he acquires the discretion not to refer. That is where the heart of the matter lies. In the circumstances was it a question of urgency or not?
We know—the Secretary of State must have known before he took his decision—that there were a number of other potential purchasers. Indeed, if I read The Sunday Times of yesterday correctly — I am sure that Mr. Murdoch's activities would not be misreported by one of the newspapers that he owns—Mr. Murdoch came on the scene only on Monday of last week when a deal had almost been fixed between Mr. Maxwell and Mr. Rowland. The deal at issue was only effected the day before the Secretary of State announced his decision not to refer, Tuesday 30 June. Again I am relying, I hope accurately, on the report in The Sunday Times that gave us a blow-by-blow account designed to show how Mr. Murdoch had outsmarted Mr. Maxwell.
Attached to the application for the Secretary of State's consent was, I believe, one of the most imperious and arrogant deadlines ever offered to one of Her Majesty's Ministers. If I had been the Secretary of State in question and someone had come to me asking me to take a decision by four o'clock on the following day I would have replied, "Do you know you are speaking to a Minister of the Crown? I might give you deadlines but you certainly will not give me deadlines about a matter of public responsibility." I believe that is the view that the vast majority of people who hold high office in this country would take about such an imperious, arrogant and impertinent deadline that was sought to be put upon a Minister.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that it was well known for a long time in press circles that this problem was coming up? Indeed, way back on 22 January Lonrho had written to the directors of News UK stating that the would give it support only until 30 June. Therefore, what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said is a load of rubbish.
It has been borne out by the facts, and if the hon. Gentleman reads yesterday's Sunday Times he will learn about the accurate sequence of events. However, that is not the main point with which we are concerned today. The question is whether it was or was not a matter of urgency. What did the Secretary of State appear to do about that?
The Secretary of State appeared to rely heavily on the resolution of the board of Lonrho plc— I assume that is the company to which the Secretary of State referred. The Secretary of State did not tell us when that resolution was made, but let us assume it was fairly near to the time, perhaps right on the heels of or immediately prior to the application.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was careful to say that the Secretary of State did not rely entirely on that resolution. I hope that that is the case, because if one accepted everything people said one would not make the independent, objective analysis that the Fair Trading Act 1973 requires of the Secretary of State.
Let us consider the other evidence. Apart from the fact that it was well known that there were other purchasers in the offing—[HON. MEMBERS: "Who?"]—and that to turn down this particular application would not necessarily have led to the closure of the newspaper, there is other evidence about the view taken by Lonrho itself. I refer the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to an interesting interview in the London Daily News, which appeared on Tuesday 30 June. I remind the House that this interview was reported the day before the Secretary of State took the decision not to refer the application.
The article was written by Mr. James Levi, the city editor of London Daily News. He reported:
that is, the chairman of Lonrho plc—
called me from a holiday resort near Split on Yugoslavia's Dalmatian coast last night to say he would carry on with the publication of Today."
Since he says, "last night", presumably that was 29 June. I shall quote this article at length because it contains evidence that can be drawn both ways and I believe that, in fairness, it should be quoted in full. The article contains a direct quote from Tiny Rowland, which states:
'We probably have to reach sales of 500,000 to break even. We have already raised the figure to 340,000 and we are confident that if we spend another £25 million to £30 million we should do it'. He likened the paper to a mine shaft which had not reached the ore-bearing rocks.[Interruption.] I am giving this quote in full, and if hon. Gentlemen do not think that it is in favour I trust that they will give this as much credence as they think suitable.
The article continued:
'We are a mining company which has sunk a mine 1,000 feet and we know the ore is at 1,600 feet so we'll keep digging.' Lonrho is rumoured to be losing nearly £30 million a year at Today."
I do not know whether that is correct, but in the interests ot. accuracy I ought to give everything that is said in this interview.
Expressing some surprise that the Mirror publisher had broken off his talks, Rowland added: 'I have been out of touch with my office for just eighteen hours. I am 70 years old this year. If I can't take a few hours off there has to be something wrong.'
The article continues:
There have been suggestions that Rupert Murdoch, Publisher of The Sun, News of the World, The Times and The Sunday Times was in the bidding. Rowland admits he now has three options"—
this is the crucial point and was reported on 29 June—
'We could re-open negotiations with Maxwell, talk to Murdoch or carry on running it ourselves. We think the losses on the paper can be soon be minimised.'
That was said two days before the reference was made. There was not a word of closing the newspaper, indeed the very opposite. It was Lonrho's intention to carry on with the publication.
I shall certainly give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman in a moment.
I think it is reasonable to assume — it would be amazing if it was not the case— that that article was read by the Secretary of State before he reached his decision. I know that it was specifically drawn to the Secretary of State's attention before he reached his decision. On the face of that, how could the Secretary of State assume that it was so certain that Lonrho had reached its decision?
We certainly read that article before the Secretary of State made his decision. My recollection is that it was drawn to our attention that it was a report written in a newspaper owned by Mr. Maxwell. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should tell me what he believes is the best evidence of a publicly quoted company—
I have no idea whether it is true. What is the best evidence—the resolution of the board or a reported interview with the chairman of the board who was, no doubt, taking a well-earned rest in Split, by a city news editor, reported in an evening newspaper? Even if the remarks, as reported, are true — I have no means of knowing one way or the other; I do not regard them as highly relevant — they are presumably the words of someone trying to sell as a going concern a newspaper which is actually on the verge of extinction. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about evidence, but such evidence is no means of judging the position of a newspaper. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is seeking to rely on a report made on a radio-telephone from Split and on the strength of that to dismiss a resolution made by the board of the company.
What is fascinating about that intervention is that it is crystal clear that the Secretary of State, although he knew those words had been expressed by Mr. Rowland, did not put the matter to Mr. Rowland. On the one hand, I am asked to believe that when the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster finds a piece of evidence he does not like, he dismisses it by saying that Mr. Rowland was merely talking up the price of the newspaper. Does it not occur to him that the resolution of the board might have been seeking to talk the Secretary of State into a particular course of action? It seems to me one can make a deduction one way or the other.
At the very best the Secretary of State was presented with a conflict of evidence at the crucial time at which he made his decision. When the Secretary of State acceded to the imperious deadline we are aware that he was anxious to accommodate the person making the application. That was obvious from the way in which it was done so speedily and from the scant information produced by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for the Secretary of State's decision.
There appeared to be no inquiry into the accounts of the newspaper to establish whether what had been said was true.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to move off the point. I mentioned the loss making of the Today newspaper, although I did say it did not seem to be the most controversial topic in this case. Of course inquiries were made into the financial position of the Today newspaper and it confirmed the belief that at least £30 million a year was being lost by that newspaper. If anybody in the House doubts that, he should know that so much as is compatible with commercial confidentiality could be given for the inquiries that were made. However, adequate inquiries were made to confirm the view that the newspaper was hopelessly loss-making, losing substantial sums.
If I need lessons in moving off the point, I shall take them from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He knows perfectly well that I am attacking the conclusion that it was a matter of urgency. A financial inquiry is relevant to that as well as to whether the newspaper was economic as a going concern. We know that The Sunday Times was permitted not to be referred on the basis that it was not economic as a going concern. It seems to be doing pretty well now after a momentary blip in its history when it was not economic as a going concern.
No full and proper inquiries appear to have been made by the Secretary of State before he accepted the company's resolution. The company is not exactly objective on the matter. It is the suitor to the Secretary of State. Of course, it will buttress its application—as the Financial Times, The Independent and the Press Council are all hinting—by dressing it up in a way that the Secretary of State will find suitable and acceptable.
Having recently joined the House and having been in the business world, I know well the confidence that one needs within a company. The right hon. and learned Gentleman read out a quotation — when a chairman is challenged about whether his newspaper can keep going, he will come out with all sorts of reasons why it will keep going. Once the decision has been made and minuted at a board, saying that it is no longer economic and that it must be sold, the matter of business confidence and whether one holds the 2·5 per cent. readership evaporates overnight. Surely that is the urgency that is necessary.
If there was a change of decision on the part of Mr. Rowland, it was remarkably quick. It appears to have been closely related to the application that he made to the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. One cannot say, "Don't believe Rowland," when it does not suit one, and, "You must believe Rowland," when it does. It is as simple as that. The quotation shows clearly that the Government were willing, indeed anxious, to be persuaded that this was a case on which there should be no reference.
However, even if the Secretary of State were satisfied that it was a matter of urgency, which I hotly dispute, the matter does not end there. He still has to decide whether he should refer it. His powers are unlimited in that respect. He still has a discretion whether to refer. What possible basis was there for not referring this case? Four newspapers were already owned and a fifth was to be acquired. Mr. Murdoch had 32 per cent. of all the daily newspaper circulation in this country before the acquisition of Today. He has over 35 per cent. of all the Sunday circulation. It is the largest concentration.
I say to the hon. Gentleman who intervenes from a sedentary position that we have made it clear throughout that if Mr. Maxwell had made the application, that should have been referred, too. I do not know where he got the ludicrous notion that he peddled earlier in the debate.
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. Furthermore, in taking into account the application to the Secretary of State, which is substantially on Mr. Murdoch's behalf, some account might have been taken of his conduct since the last time the matter was considered by a Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen). I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has temporarily left the Chamber.
On that occasion it was accepted that The Sunday Times was not economic as a going concern, but a great deal of fuss was made about conditions that were attached to the Government's decision. I ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: if the jobs were so important and if the maintenance of a separate newspaper was so important, why was there no condition that it should be kept going as an independent newspaper or that the jobs should he preserved? That is not an idle question because many people believe that one of the purposes behind the acquisition of Today might be the acquisition of the colour printing presses, not the newspaper itself. The presses would be available to provide a back-up for Mr. Murdoch's other four newspapers.
On that previous occasion we were told that we need not be worried about Mr. Murdoch because important conditions were entrenched in the permission that was given by the then Secretary of State. The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North, quoted them at length and said that they were sanctions backed by the force of law.
On 27 January 1981, the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) who unfortunately is not here, got so carried away with enthusiasm for those conditions that he interrupted the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), who was speaking at the time, and said:
One of the things that reassure many of us is the legal status of those conditions. If an agreement with conditions is made by the Minister the breaking of those conditions would be a criminal offence.
When the then Secretary of State wound up the debate, he stressed the great importance of the sanctions and said that it was not just a set of assurances. He said:
The sanctions that are implicit in the conditions that I attach under section 58 of the Fair Trading Act … are formidable sanctions.
The right hon. Gentleman told us that we should pay attention to Mr. Harold Evans, at that stage editor of the Sunday Times. It was an effective riposte in the debate. The right hon. Gentleman quoted Mr. Evans, who said:
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." —[Official Report, 27 January 1981; Vol. 997, c. 795–822.]
That is a formidable point.
I now refer to the biography of Mr. Harold Evans, entitled "Good Times, Bad Times". On page 401 he tells us what happened in The Times. He said that Mr. Murdoch
guaranteed that the editors would have control of the political policy of their newspapers; that they would have freedom within fixed annual budgets; that the editors would not be subject to instruction from either the proprietor or management on the selection and balance of news and opinion; that instructions to journalists would be given only by their editor; and that any future sale of the titles would require the agreement of a majority of the independent national directors.
It was a matter of controversy in the House that one of the things that Mr. Murdoch did speedily was to transfer the titles to News International, but let that pass for the moment.
Mr. Evans concludes:
In my year as editor of The Times, Murdoch broke all these guarantees. He put his point of view very simply to the home editor of The Times, Fred Emery, when he summoned him from holiday on 4 March to his office shortly before asking for my resignation: 'I give instructions to my editors all round the world, why shouldn't I in London?' He was reminded of the undertakings to the Secretary of State. 'They're not worth the paper they're written on,' Murdoch replied.
That is the man who, on his next application to the Secretary of State, was given the roll-over permission that he sought and had arranged would happen by setting up the application in the way in which it was done.
Now we know that the Secretary of State chose not to exercise his discretion in respect of such a person. Any reasonable Secretary of State would have said, "Should I give way when there has been an imperious deadline and give discretion to a person who broke all the guarantees which my predecessor talked about, and which Parliament supported?" I do not know whether the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster or the Secretary of State knew anything about those affairs. They should have been instructed. I am sure that the civil servants who advised them know only too well what happened. It was embarrassing for the Government that one of the first things that Mr. Murdoch did was to remove the titles. Because there was a fuss in the House, he had to put them back to where they were. It was an instructive insight into his point of view.
Of course, the one thing that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said with which we could all agree is that there is a serious question about the concentration of newspaper power in this country. Clearly, Parliament will have to consider the whole matter a little further. One thing, however, is crystal clear. The Act is too weak, especially when it is accompanied by weak Ministers and a weak Government who have no intention of bringing even its minimal provisions into play. We have a serious problem—
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.
There is a serious problem to do with the ownership of the media in this country. It concerns not only the newspaper that we are discussing today. For example, as is noted in early-day motion 43, there is great concern about The Scotsman and the dispute taking place there at the moment. Hon. Members on all sides of the House have expressed their concern that one of Scotland's most important national newspapers should be preserved as an independent voice, facing, as it does, a commercial requirement that it should merge all its editorial and reporting functions with other parts of the group of which it happens to be a member. One of the issues at stake is the proper reporting of Parliament by correspondents who are employed by that newspaper directly, so that it does not have to take the copy that is fed through the evening newspaper chain with which it is associated.
I wish that we had a Government who would take seriously the public concern in these matters. A Secretary of State should intervene in disputes such as that to bring about some resolution of the matter. I speak for more hon. Members than those who sit only on my side of the House when I say that there is serious concern, and that the sooner negotiations start in that case, the better.
This concentration of power is at the heart of public concern. Since we know that the present provisions are insufficient, Parliament will, sooner or later, have to consider stronger provisions. Most probably, we should have some upper limit on the amount of newspaper power that one individual or company can own in this country. I hope that more referrals will be made, so that there can be a proper consideration of the public interest and notice can be served on newspaper proprietors that they cannot bully Secretaries of State by threatening that the titles will cease publication. On the other hand, I say that there might be some justification in the view that the inquiries take too long.
In a moment.
If the inquiries take too long, let us find a way of doing things more speedily. It is not beyond the wit of Parliament, or of a Government who wanted to have an effective method, to devise a way of doing that.
We should also take account of the serious concentrations of power that span the various types of media. Above all, there is the case of Mr. Murdoch, who owns 75 per cent. of all the print in Australia. He also owns satellites, other communications and broadcasting networks in Australia and the United States, as well as the highly profitable newspapers that he has here.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us what he would prefer to the present powers? Will he endorse the policy views of the Labour finance and industry group about the Office of Fair Trading references on mergers as expressed in The Independent of January 1987? I quote from The Independent of 20 January:
the Office of Fair Trading, which would in turn be enlarged by recruiting staff who have 'a political and ideological understanding' of Labour's aims. 'Selection, vetting and monitoring for competence, experience and political inclination will be essential for Labour', says a paper published yesterday by the Labour Finance and Industry Group.
Is it still the Labour party's intention to put people into the OFT on a political and ideological basis?
That reinforces my previous view that if I want to be taken off the point there is no better guide than the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. What I am suggesting—a serious Minister would listen to it—is that it is high time we concentrated on how to obtain an effective method of stopping the concentration of newspaper power. That is a highly serious point, which exercises people throughout the House and country. Since I foolishly agreed to give way to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), I shall stand by my promise.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is wise and learned, as we know, and no less so for having given way to me. We have all enjoyed the right hon. and learned Gentleman's vacuous theorising about concentration in the media. However, he has failed entirely to explain how that concentration could be reduced by the closure of the newspaper under discussion this afternoon. Will he apply himself to the factual case that we—and Ministers—must examine as to what are the alternatives to the takeover by Murdoch? The only other interest that has been shown in the newspaper came from Mr. Maxwell, who already controls a quarter of circulation of the press. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that he would not have approved of a takeover by Maxwell or Murdoch—in which case, closure would have been certain?
The hon. Gentleman should listen to what I say. I made it clear, today and last week, that in the event of Mr. Maxwell making an application we would have taken the same view, as exactly the same issue of concentration of power would have arisen. I do not accept — as the Government willingly did — that it was inevitable that the newspaper would close. The threat to close it was a bluff that worked on Ministers. As happened with The Times and the Sunday Times, that is the way to roll over Ministers — by putting forward the right statements that allow them to get out of the provisions.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that there is a further safeguard to be examined, in addition to those that he has listed? In the United States, there is a requirement of citizenship for ownership of more than a certain percentage of the press. That is why Mr. Murdoch is now an American citizen, rather than an Australian one. Should we not require major slices of the media to be owned by people who are loyal to this country?
That is well worth considering, if for no other reason than that we have such a requirement in the Broadcasting Act 1981, covering another section of the media. However, let us not be fooled into thinking that that would deter Murdoch. He gave up his citizenship to advance his interests in the United States. Some of us would never think of giving up our citizenship to advance our commercial interest. However, that is what Murdoch did in that case.
The issue at the heart of today's debate is that this spineless and complacent Government gave way once again, with the result that we have passed another milestone on the road to the heavy concentration of the ownership of the media in this country in hands that do not hesitate to use them for their own benefit and to advance their own purposes. That must be a matter for great regret.
The right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) made a skilful speech and, not for the first time in newspaper debates, I find myself in some, but not total, agreement with him. I cannot follow him in some of the moral and legal indignation that permeated his speech. I suspect that we are talking about a smaller issue than the one that he has developed this afternoon, although I agree that one of the fundamental points at stake is the weakness of the Act. That weakness is manifested in the fact that the Today horse has already bolted, so that our proceedings today will already be seen as a somewhat academic exercise—an arguing about whether the stable door should have been guarded more vigilantly by the Secretary of State. We should have had the debate before the decision was taken, not after.
To the world outside, the academic nature of the exercise is reinforced by the near-certainty that, had the Secretary of State referred the sale of Today to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, that referral would not have been likely to make any difference to the end result, beyond causing an expensive, although perhaps legally necessary, delay.
Let us remember that the Today newspaper had less than 2·5 per cent. of the national daily circulation, and to argue that Mr. Murdoch's acquisition of that loss-making burden somehow represents a significant monopolistic shift in the power structure of Britain's newspaper industry is pure moonshine. We should remind ourselves that the great British public have shown a considerable lack of interest in, or affection for, Today. They have refused to buy or read it in great numbers, and they refused to take its advice to vote for the alliance at the last election. As far as I can tell from testing public opinion in the, admittedly limited, world of pubs in Ramsgate in my constituency at the weekend, most people do not care two hoots whether or not Murdoch owns Today. In short, the debate is about one of those esoteric issues that are exclusively reserved for the chattering classes of journalists, politicians and lawyers.
The hon. Gentleman complains that there has been all this fuss about a newspaper that had the comparatively minor share of 2·5 per cent. of circulation. Does that mean that he is quite happy that one third of the control of our popular press should be in the hands of one man, who, incidentally, is not even British?
I do not think that it would have made any great difference if Today had gone to Mr. Maxwell, who also has a large slice of daily newspaper circulation. We are dealing with a rather narrow issue, which is of interest, above all, to the chattering classes, rather than to the great British public. However, if we are to put on a little light parliamentary operetta for the benefit of those chattering classes, let us at least enjoy it and reflect on the irony of the situation.
I wish to begin with a little dirge of sympathy for my noble Friend Lord Young. He came into his office with the reputation of being the great deregulator, the scourge of red tape and the breaker of "Barriers to Business" as his famous and successful White Paper was called. What did Lord Young find on his desk on his first week of office? Why, he found this little excrescence of a problem of a failed colour tabloid newspaper, with no readers or advertisers to speak of and with a mangy journalistic reputation about as significant as that of the Ballarat Echo on an off day.
I am sure that Lord Young, with his natural instincts, could not wait to shovel that excrescence into the wastepaper basket. I feel that he wanted to deregulate it into the dustbin immediately, but perhaps he found himself surrounded by a chorus of wailing Sir Humphreys and m'learned friends from the legal division of his Department, all saying to him words to the effect of, "Hold on a minute, Secretary of State. You have some very important responsibilities here; you have some solemn duties under the Fair Trading Act. You must study this great problem, call in great and good men, consult the Director General of Fair Trading and refer the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission."
So poor old Lord Young had to curb his natural instincts as the Lord High Deregulator for a few moments, in order to consider vital questions such as how imminent the threat of the closure of Today really was, and, above all, whether Today was, in the words of the Act, "a going concern".
Although the Today newspaper was losing a great deal of money, it was clearly a going concern in the eyes of at least three proprietors. Mr. Tiny Rowland has kept it going for many months, partly, one suspects, to wage his private warfare against the Thatcher family, as he did up to and during the general election campaign. It seems from at least one of his interviews with the London Daily News that he was willing to keep it going for even longer.
Then we had Mr. Robert Maxwell, who wanted to keep Today going so badly that he was prepared to offer £30 million for it. Apparently, his only problem—in these internecine rivalries between proprietors—was that he could not stand negotiating with Mr. Tiny Rowland. It must have been a little difficult on a yacht on the Adriatic, and that seemed to be the great issue of principle on which he broke off negotiations. The problem was not the price or wanting the newspaper.
Then we had Mr. Murdoch himself, who was the keenest of them all to keep Today going. Indeed, he was so keen that he was prepared to fly across the Atlantic by Concorde twice in one day to put on the table a mere £38 million.
I think that the activities of these three dinosaurs of iron whim show only too clearly that a paper that was worth £38 million to three tycoons is a going concern. It would not have been closed and made worthless just because a reference was made to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It was not, in the Australian vernacular, Sydney or the Bush. Mr. Murdoch, who is well experienced in setting menacing artificial deadlines in stand-and-deliver Ned Kelly fashion knew that, but he said that it was Sydney or the Bush. But then Mr. Murdoch is quite used to not playing the game—and winning it as a result. I think that if his bluff had been called, all that would have happened is that there would have been a delay of several weeks — perhaps three months— which would have knocked £3 million or £4 million off the price of Today. It is as simple as that, and every objective, neutral observer of the newspaper industry that I know shares that view.
There is little doubt in terms of pure law that, under the terms of the Fair Trading Act, Lord Young was under a duty to refer the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission— unless he could he objectively convinced that it was not "a going concern".
Has the hon. Gentleman considered that Mr. Murdoch would hardly have pushed the Government to make such a speedy decision if he would save several million pounds from a delay? Perhaps Mr. Murdoch thought that the newspaper was reaching the point where it would be a viable concern and that Mr. Rowland would have kept it going.
I am not as expert as the hon. Gentleman in reading Mr. Murdoch's mind, but we know that Mr. Murdoch knows a quick deal when he sees one. He knew that he could get Today quickly by putting a pistol to the head of the Secretary of State, and that is what he did.
I think that there was a prima facie case for a referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, so how did the Houdini-like Secretary of State escape from his obvious responsibilities? I suspect that he was able to find the only justifiable loophole by going back and studying the precedents set by previous incumbents of his office. And where better to look for helpful precedents than that set by the new keeper of the Conservative party's conscience—the voice crying in the wilderness and in the Sunday Telegraph—Saint John of Oswestry?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) has always moved in a mysterious way, and he was never more baffling than when, in January 1981, as Secretary of State for Trade, he declared himself convinced that the highly profitable Sunday Times could he taken over by Mr. Rupert Murdoch without reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. There is no point in going over all that old ground again, but the sorry episode of the Sunday Times demonstrated that, if there ever was a "Stalinist regime" at No. 10 Downing street, my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North was, at that time, its most servile apparatchik.
After all, my right hon. Friend was the Secretary of State who demonstrated that a coach and horses could be driven through the Fair Trading Act's provisions on newspaper mergers, and he was the originator of Biffen's law, which may be stated as, "A newspaper is a going concern, until Mr. Murdoch says that it is not a going concern."
Biffen's law and its legacy have allowed three successive Murdoch acquisitions to avoid a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
No. I am just finishing.
Until the sections of the Fair Trading Act on newspaper mergers are reformed and strengthened, the Act will remain a law in disrepute. That is why I have said, only slightly tongue in cheek, that the only logical way to deal with the problem is to give Rupert Murdoch a free pass and have done with it.
We were all taken by surprise by the abrupt conclusion of the extraordinary speech by the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), which seemed to be directed at everybody in general, but at nobody in particular.
The hon. Gentleman freely hurled abuse at the editorial and journalistic quality of Today and at its general performance, but it is worth recording that in the past three months the newspaper has achieved the biggest percentage increase in circulation of any national newspaper, and has put on nearly 50,000 circulation. That is no mean achievement. It was moving in a positive direction.
It is a matter of regret to us to see the passing of the only newspaper that consistently supported the alliance during the past few months and during the general election campaign. Conservative Members do their party no credit when they sneer at a newspaper that represents a cause different from their own. Indeed, they reveal the corruption that is creeping into the Tory party, which wants to silence all opposition and alternative viewpoints. It is important to note that that attitude is creeping through the Conservative party.
That is so, and perhaps it is just a small contribution to the dispute that is now wracking The Scotsman. It is the kind of pressure that the Government are putting on that newspaper.
I regret the passing of Today and I do not agree with the hon. Member for Thanet, South in attacking its journalistic standards. I regret its passing, not just in terms of the implications for trade and industry practices, but as a journalist. I have not seen a newspaper vandalised as quickly as that newspaper has been vandalised in the few days since it was taken over. I took the time and trouble to read it and can tell the House that by no stretch of the imagination is it the paper that it was a week ago. It is certainly not a middle-market paper, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster claimed that as one of the reasons why it was OK for the go-ahead to be given. It is already a down-market paper and going fast into the gutter, and that is clearly the objective of the new owners. The Chancellor's argument is spurious.
The independence of Today is simply a joke, and the degradation started immediately that the takeover took effect. On the day of the takeover, the first pre-midnight edition, which was produced before midnight by the outgoing editor, carried a report of the statement in the House on the takeover proposals. That report showed that there had been considerable opposition to the Government's non-referral by the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith), by other hon. Members, and by me. The second and third editions that night showed a paean of praise for the Murdoch takeover and gave the impression that the entire universe was cheering the event. That was a quite remarkable turn around and a revelation of how independent Today is under its new owners.
The Government motion talks carefully and guardedly about the loss of jobs and about the implications for closure if the Government had not accepted the Murdoch deadline. The first thing that the House should know is that wholesale sackings are already taking place. Many jobs have already gone since Wednesday. What kind of assurances have the Government sought about jobs, and what kind of satisfaction do they expect? I am afraid that the commitment to jobs is very hollow.
The millions of pounds that will be poured into the newspaper from now on will probably preserve the title, but the suggestion that the 500 jobs are really secure is not regarded by most of the staff on the newspaper with equanimity or conviction. I said last week that the Government were guilty of a disgraceful negation of responsibility and that their excuses were lame. I stand by that and I shall embellish it. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said last week, and said again today, that Today represented only 2·5 per cent. of the market and, therefore, its takeover represented no significant further consolidation or concentration of ownership. Will he say the same thing when The Independent newspaper is being added to the the Murdoch stable, because it has just about the same share of the market? Will he tell us at what point concentration of the press under one owner is unacceptably high?
It is certainly clear by now that Murdoch's share of the market is enough to constitute a restraint on trade. I hear reports that the advertising agencies are being bullied, and that if bullying will not work they are being threatened, intimidated or even bribed by Murdoch in an effort to seduce advertising away from newspapers. That applies particularly to The Independent so that its position in the market will be weakened and in future he can add it to the number in his stable. There is no end to the man's ambition to concentrate ownership of the press.
I shall now turn to the argument put forward by, I think, every hon. Member who has spoken about the implications of the threat of blackmail. It has been said that if the Government had not accepted the deadline, Today would have folded. The obvious point has already been made that if Today was worth £38 million last Wednesday, it is inconceivable that if the Government had not acceded it would have been worth nothing on Thursday. The other point is the situation that Lonhro was in. It took over Today when the paper was losing money. Eddie Shah had incompetently tried to launch a newspaper, thinking that new technology was all that newspapers were about. He had no record, and no understanding of how expensive it is to launch a new title and of how much marketing and promotion were necessary.
When Lonhro took over Today, it knew that it was a loss-maker and that Lonhro would have to build up the paper. Lonhro recognised that that would take some time. The problem for Today, which caused the newspaper to suffer a misfortune, was that Lonhro's other trading interests turned sour during the same period. As a result of that the shares were dipping on the market and Lonhro needed to improve its cash position fast in advance of the annual report. Only last month it sold its gambling interests for £126 million. The further £38 million last week gives Lonhro £164 million to dress up the national report. That was the real motive.
If a referral had been made, folding Today rather than waiting for the outcome would have been stupid business practice because, clearly, there would have been an immediate requirement to write off the £30 million of accumulated losses. In those circumstances, the figures that Lonhro would have had to present for the annual report would have been infinitely worse than if it had waited for the outcome of a referral and had then sought to find a bidder. The indications are that the three options outlined by the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East would have crystallised. Either Maxwell or Murdoch would have firmed up, or possibly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) said, Today would have reached a level of circulation that would have made Tiny Rowlands and Lonhro decide that it was worth hanging in there to reach profitability.
The paper was making rapid progress in a positive direction. That is the main reason why nobody can seriously believe the Government's claim that if they had not acceded to the request Today would have folded. There is no conceivable or sensible business reason for folding that newspaper. The fact that it is incredible makes me conclude that the Government's decision was not, as the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East described it, spineless and complacent. It was corrupt.
The telephone call that Lord Young made to Murdoch during the election campaign to complain that the Sun was not giving enough commitment at that stage to the Tory party produced the desired response of another scurrilous outburst of Sun-style support for the Conservative party. The pay-off came when, unfortunately for Lord Young, Rupert Murdoch came to him shortly after he had been made Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and chairman- designate of the Tory party, and asked for support for this takeover. One need not look far from that to conclude that the Government's decision was too close to the interests of the Tory party to believe the lame arguments put forward by the Government to defend their decision.
The Government's excuses are lame in the extreme, and I do not think that I have seen the Chancellor of the Duchy so uncomfortable at the Dispatch Box during the time that I have been a Member of the House. I wonder whether in four years' time Lord Young or his successor as chairman of the Tory party will ring the editor of Today to complain that he is not getting the support that he expects. That is certainly the way that thinking is going on the Tory Benches.
Finally, I should like to take up a point made by the hon. Member for Thanet, South. It is worth recalling that since 1965, of 91 applications for press mergers and takeovers, only 18 have been referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and that no national newspaper deal has been turned down. Clearly, the refusal to use the commission in the present situation is untenable and unacceptable.
The 1962 Royal Commission on the press said that the scrutiny of press takeovers
should be kept entirely free of government responsibility or political association.
One would have thought that the embarrassment felt by Ministers over the last few days on this issue would have encouraged them to adopt that recommendation. They should have tried to find a method of ensuring that there was an automatic referral that could be dealt with in a speedier time of, say, six weeks, and could possibly be handled by a judge accustomed to commercial law. I think that that suggestion would find a lot of favour in the press.
If that were the practice and the law, the kinds of shotgun marriages that we have expected and suffered from Murdoch could not happen in future. Everybody should he keen to ensure that that were so and that blackmail could be eliminated. We have seen the Government accede to blackmail, but in this instance they did not mind too much because the outcome was to their political advantage. This is a sad and regrettable period in the development of the British press.
The independence of the British press is now under severe attack. Such concentration of ownership is a matter of considerable concern. The lack of concern of, and response from, Conservative Members is a sign of the corruption of power, of complacency and of their desire to ensure that the organs of the media express only the views that they wish to see expressed. I would have more faith and trust in the Conservative party's commitment to freedom if I saw action to support plurality and diversity. The Government have failed to justify their behaviour and stand indicted for their accession to blackmail.
There is no doubt that a respectable case could be made out against the decision taken by my noble Friend Lord Young not to refer this transaction to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I would not agree with that case, but it is legitimate. However, it is not legitimate for the Labour party and its trade union friends to pretend that they are defenders of choice and diversity in the free British press. On every conceivable opportunity given to them, they have been found supporting, and giving succour to, those who want to bring the printing presses to a halt.
It is somewhat ironic that the newspaper about which we are talking is the Today newspaper. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said, the newspaper was not founded by a great press baron such as Mr. Maxwell, Mr. Murdoch or even Tiny Rowland. It was founded by a small business man from the north-west of England, which is where my constituency lies. My right hon. and learned Friend touched on the history of the case and it might be as well for the House to be reminded of that history.
Eddie Shah, who founded the Today newspaper, first came to national attention after the 1983 general election, when he was attempting to expand choice and diversity in local newspapers in the north-west of England. He was tired of the restrictive practices of the trade unions, which had seen the death, not merely the loss of independence, of national and local newspapers. He resolved to try a different way.
The reaction of the trade unions — a reaction supported by the Labour party—was simple. They tried to close down Mr. Shah's newspapers. Nothing was allowed to impede that aim, whether it was personal violence, intimidation or blockading the printing works. Thank goodness, that campaign failed, but it was no thanks to the latter-day defenders of a free press on the Labour Benches.
It is important because the credentials of the Labour party, as it criticises the Government position, need to be examined.
Mr. Shah went on to found the Today newspaper. Pie started a revolution in the printing industry and he attempted to break the power of the printing unions, which had hitherto thought—often correctly—that every newspaper employer was a soft touch. Mr. Shah failed, but the newspaper survived. The Opposition do not like the fact that his legacy was that the power of the printing trade unions was broken for ever. They are finished.
If the Labour party genuinely wanted to see a flowering of opinion, newspapers being created and more opinions being seen, they would have welcomed that development. Not a bit of it. Hon. Members have already criticised the conduct of Rupert Murdoch. When he tried to bring some sense into the printing industry, and to bring it into the 1980s, the Left resolved that he should not succeed. If the Grunwick picket line was the first Ascot of the Left, the Wapping barricade was undoubtedly the second. Less than a year ago, we saw the yobbish tendency of the Labour party fighting on the streets while the so-called refined or respectable tendency was ostentatiously shunning any contact with the Murdoch press while having the gall to complain that their views were misrepresented in his newspapers.
My speech will not be long because I wish only to remind the House of the history. Those who now work themselves into a pious rage over one newspaper, with only 2·5 per cent. of the national circulation, losing its independence, did not give a tuppenny damn about the threat to major national circulation newspapers and local newspapers when they were in danger of losing not merely their independence and freedom but their very existence.
The Labour party has shown in this debate hypocrisy and something worse. I deplore its constant references to the nationality of Mr. Murdoch.
Whatever it is, such jibes come ill from a party that is constantly telling us that it is fighting racism and discrimination. It is wrong to put such an attitude to the House. Labour Members have no right to come to the House to bemoan the fate of the British press. They are responsible for a large measure of this. I think that it was Stanley Baldwin who described the press barons in the 1930s as having power without responsibility. Times have changed. The last election showed that the Labour party has no power, and never will have. This debate has shown that it has no responsibility either.
I am sponsored by the National Graphical Association. My position is well known, and I shall not go down that road today. However, I shall indulge in some schadenfreude at the expense of Mr. Shah. In many respects, the difficulties that he encountered were ones that the NGA helped to correct, as they were difficulties in the production of the Today newspaper following the debacle of its launching. These problems were corrected by the employment of union members at his plants. In the past few months, an increasing number of people on the production side of Today have taken out union membership. While there is by no means a closed shop there, a substantial number of the work force is engaged in producing what, technically, is now regarded as an attractive product.
The issues that we have to confront today are the role of the Secretary of State and the application of the criteria on the bid, and the nature of the purchase and its significance for newspaper printing and production. There has been much talk about circulation and the importance of the jobs, but there has not been much mention of the interaction between the production facilities and the future of other sections of the British press. That is the most glaring omission from the criteria behind which the Minister has sought to hide.
In comparison to the News International bid, Sunday Sport, at what has modestly been called the bottom end of the market, talked in terms of a sum of money substantial enough to make Mr. Rowland, if he were in the financial difficulties described by the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), seize that bid in advance of his consideration of the Murdoch one. Anything up for sale in Britain strictly requires the interest of Mr. Maxwell. He is like the ladies who attend jumble sales organised by the Labour party who come along and look at every bargain and try to haggle for a price. When they find that there is another jumble sale down the street next week, they say, "We'll go down there and have a go."
Mr. Maxwell's interest is well founded and well established. That is one reason why Opposition Members would have demanded Maxwell's reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission had his bid been successful. Although in many respects he is sympathetic to the Labour party, there are times when we have to watch him very closely. As they say in Scotland, "When you sit down with the devil, you've got to use a lang spoon."
No matter who owned the paper, we would have to be careful. We are not clear whether the interest shown by Associated Newspapers was simply superficial or whether the company, in a predatory fashion, wanted to move into that area of the market in which News International and Today are presently competing.
Many people have suggested that a circulation of 500,000 would have been the break-even point although at one time there was talk that that circulation figure could have been as low as 35,000 if any of the companies involved wanted to make a go of the newspaper. The signs are that circulation had been creeping up and that advertising revenues had been improving. It is probably true to claim that the status of the Today element in the Lonrho accounts is not nearly as red as has been suggested.
We have been down this road before with Mr. Rowland. It is not that long since Mr. Rowland closed another new and exciting paper. The only difference between Today and the paper I have in mind is that people in the locality were prepared in great numbers to be identified with the paper and they strongly supported the quality and standards that the paper was seeking to uphold. Of course, I am referring to the Glasgow-produced Sunday Standard. That paper was closed abruptly for failing to meet fully, in a relatively short period, the targets set at its launch. Its closure was, once again, the result of the whimsical approach of Mr. Rowland to what was becoming a very significant newspaper institution.
Thankfully, the days are long past when the press barons continued to throw good money after bad to support their opinions and prejudices. Perhaps Mr. Rowland became bored. However, perhaps he did not want to be another contract printer. There may be aspects of the face of capitalism that even he finds unacceptable and perhaps he does not want to be involved in printing for other people. At the end of the day, his new presses were doing that. Indeed, the Today operation was running on a better financial footing than at any time since its launch because the London Daily Newswas being printed at Heathrow and because deals had been struck, following the closure of Today on Sunday, with the News of the World to print the colour sections of that paper.
The acquisition by News International follows logically into the scheme of things as Mr. Murdoch would want them. We have seen the appointment of a new editor to the News of the World whose aim is to increase the circulation of that paper even more. The weapon to be used in that circulation battle will be the colour presses now owned by News International. Those presses will be used until the next phase of Wapping is completed some time within the next 20 or 24 months.
It may be argued that Mr. Murdoch wishes to start up a new paper. However, the truth is that he has no record of starting papers in Britain; he merely acquires them, reduces them to the lowest common denominator of what passes as popular appeal and then sells them in ever greater numbers. That may be a testament to his commercial judgment or his assessment of humankind. I am not sure which. However, Murdoch will acquire and unload assets as and when that suits his purpose. I can well imagine that in two years' time we may be debating the sale of Today's printing presses. Those presses might well be sold to Mr. Maxwell and he would then have the colour paper that he wants to sell in great numbers, in the kind of numbers that he is achieving in Scotland with the Daily Record.
In the antics and moves of the newspaper proprietors we see the quite callous appreciation of the need to secure various means of production in different parts of the country. While we all welcome the retention of the jobs, few of us believe that the deal that has been struck will necessarily resolve anxiety. As I have said, I can imagine us facing the same problems in two years' time because of the nature of the newspaper industry. News International might well have been deterred by the bid being referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. We cannot be certain about that, but the argument is clear. The paper was a going concern and an attractive proposition.
The Secretary of State seems to have stood idly by. He does not realise that market share is not the only criterion that should have been taken into account. The statistics of the demand or the circulation of the newspaper are not the only important factors. Consideration should have been given to the control of the means of producing the newspaper. In many respects that is just as important in the longer term for the public interest.
A proper examination of those circumstances would have shown that the owners of newspapers today now produce one another's papers. In days gone by, the critics of monopoly capitalism might have identified the interlocking directorships as one of the mechanisms whereby ownership was concentrated. Today, power is exercised by small groups of men and their satraps by affording one another the opportunity to produce journals in different parts of the country and to do that in a way that has resulted in the ending of the origination by Express Newspapers Ltd in Manchester and a considerable loss of jobs in that area.
The lesson of this non-referral is clear. Whenever the Government are challenged by a large newspaper proprietor, they always hide behind the criteria because the criteria do not take account of present circumstances. The Fair Trading Act 1973 is not relevant to today's circumstances. No matter who brings in new technology or who assists in that, new technology requires new systems of control. This non-referral has shown that the Government, and the Secretary of State, are unfit to hold office because they do not appreciate that in trade and industry the needs of readers in the newspaper industry and of the producers and journalists are intermingled in such a way that we must have new controls over publication and ownership of papers and so break the interlocking relationship between the various strands.
We must find a means of adequately separating the production of newspapers from the control of them if the owners of newspapers are using productive powers to interfere with the freedom of the press, or to ensure that the concentration of ownership increases to an exent that means that the Secretary of State is incapable of interfering with it. It is clear that he is incapable of doing so when we consider the episode that we are now discussing.
This may not have been the most successful exercise that the Opposition have waged to secure a referral, but it will alert the public to the fact that much more is required in the ownership and control of newspapers than the fig-leaf-like protection that is afforded to everyone by the 1973 Act.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) did not have more time to develop his thinking on how the free press might be made a little less free. He made a significant contribution to the debate, however, and at the same time weakened the Opposition's case. He was the first Opposition Member to express some concern about jobs being at risk. He knows that jobs have been lost in recent years in the Scottish newspaper industry, and he expressed concern about the real risks of jobs being lost at Today. He knows that jobs were under threat, but that concern was not expressed by the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith).
Secondly, and more significantly, the hon. Gentleman reminded us that Mr. Rowland, as with Mr. Murdoch, has had no hesitation in closing newspapers that have made significant losses. No time was wasted in closing the Sunday Standard.
The Opposition have failed to make their case, and that is not because their anger is entirely synthetic. I imagine that it was occasioned by one telephone call from Mr. Maxwell last week. Their failure to make their case is not merely because their anger is conditioned by their perennial anti-Murdoch prejudice, which runs through their entire approach to the newspaper industry. They have failed because they have been unable to advance their case on the central test in the Fair Trading Act 1973 of competition in the newspaper industry.
The first test is whether a newspaper is or is not economic as a going concern. There is ample evidence—this evidence was before Ministers — that Today was losing considerable sums. There were two previous owners, and its sister newspaper, Today on Sunday, had already been closed. That fact was completely ignored by the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East. There was no alternative bidder making a firm offer to Mr. Rowland and Lonrho, and it is evident from all that we have seen and read that the business was on the brink of collapse. It seems that the first test of the 1973 Act is clearly satisfied.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned he closure of Today on Sunday and also Mr. Rowland's ability to close newspapers. Does he regard the present legal framework as adequate when newspaper proprietors can close titles without any reference to the Government? We are talking about a massive concentration of ownership in an industry that provides sources of information for the public. Furthermore, is the hon. Gentleman happy that the provincial press is being devastated by the proprietors? Instead of criticising the Opposition's attempt to get some sanity into the newspaper business, will he urge the Government Front Bench to think seriously about the dangerous concentration within the industry?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about closures and whether they should he notified. I shall come at the end of my speech to the general principles that we should examine in the operation of the 1973 Act.
The second test under the 1973 Act is whether the matter was urgent, and it seems that there is ample evidence that it was. Today was losing about £500.000 a week, which means that private business and private interests were losing that money. However, the Opposition have made far too much of the deadline that they feel was imposed on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. If a business is losing money week after week, there must be a point at which any sensible management will draw the line and say, "We will not allow our losses to continue after a certain point." The Opposition have presented their case in a way that suggests that Mr. Rowland had some sort of public duty to continue subsidising the newspaper to the extent of about £500,000 a week, and to do so week after week.
The matter was urgent because jobs had already been lost and more jobs were at immediate risk. I should have liked to hear more from the Opposition Front Bench about the extent to which they believe that the 500 jobs would have been secured if my noble Friend had not taken the action that he did. My noble Friend the Secretary of State had a difficult decision to take under the terms of the Act, and if Mr. Murdoch closes Today a year from now, the Opposition will crow. They do not care about Murdoch jobs in any event, but they will crow if it appears that my noble Friend took the wrong decision. On the other hand, if Mr. Murdoch makes a success of Today and turns it round so that it starts to make money, as he did with The Sunday Times, they will argue in a year or two's time that it must have been a going concern all along. It is only management, change of management, and the application of better management, business and marketing techniques that will turn the newspaper round.
My noble Friend the Secretary of State did not have an easy decision to take, but it seems that he took the right one, given that the conditions set out in the 1973 Act were satisfied. That suggests that the Government were fully entitled to agree that the transfer should take place without a report from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. If that is so, there is only one remaining and separate consideration to which we should address ourselves. Given that the Government were entitled to agree to the transfer, were they right to agree that the title should be transferred to News International? It seems that the tests to be applied are whether News International already has a significant stake in the middle market of newspapers, which plainly it has not, and whether the addition of the Today title will increase its share of the total newspaper market to the extent that it will have a dominant position.
It is necessary only to state the reverse of the first test to realise that it cannot be implied that News International's ownership of Today reduces competition in the middle market between the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. Did Lonrho's ownership of Today, or its ownership by Eddie Shah reduce competition between the Daily Mail and the Daily Express? It would seem that the presence of a third player in the middle market enhances competition, and I find it rather odd that the Labour party of all parties should seek to preserve an aging middle-class duopoly.
Will the addition of Today to the Murdoch stable significantly affect his share of the total market? Will the numerical increase in the number of his titles have that effect? It does not seem to me that that test is met either. He still does not have even one third of the total newspaper market in this country. I do not think that this decision makes any significant change in the concentration of the newspaper industry.
It is especially important that the Today title should survive, because this newspaper ushered in the era of new technology and the new industrial relations climate that those of us who support and believe in free newspapers should do everything possible to encourage. When I say "free newspapers," I mean not simply newspapers that are free to compete against other newspapers, but newspapers that are free to compete as businesses—free from the archaic working practices and anti-business methods of the past, and free as businesses to make profits and to be successful. We in this House owe a special debt to Today and Eddie Shah for opening the way to wider and freer competition in the newspaper market.
Finally, I turn to the point made by the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd). Surely, however cumbersome they may seem, the real test of the workings of the Fair Trading Act 1973—and I accept that there is concern in Scotland and the north at the closure of titles — is whether newspapers are becoming more, or less, plural. Over the past two years or so we have seen a growing diversity in our newspaper industry. That growing diversity and plurality are quite separate from the question of how many newspapers Murdoch, Maxwell, Beaverbrook or Stevens owns, and all hon. Members should be ready and willing to support it.
I welcome the decision taken by my noble Friend. He has preserved the title of Today, he has preserved it as a going concern and he has secured the jobs that go with it. Of course, if Mr. Maxwell is seriously interested in buying the newspaper it will be open to him to make an application in the future, but it was my noble Friend's action last week that ensured the newspaper's survival, either to prosper on its own, or to be ready to let others try.
The Minister and his hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) have made much of the fact that 500 jobs would have been at risk if the sale of Today had been referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Indeed, the Minister—I am sorry that he is not in his place—claimed that the decision not to refer had
preserved a substantial number of jobs." — [Official Report, 1 July 1987; Vol. 118, c. 504.]
I must say to the Minister's third representative on the Front Bench—the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins)—that he was in no position last week to claim credit for those jobs. Let me ask him—although I shall not get an answer, because he has left the bone here; even the dog has gone home — what assurances about jobs the Secretary of State sought from Mr. Murdoch, and what assurances were given.
There is bound to be no reply to that question; however, I have the answer. My information is that no such assurances were sought. The Minister and his hon. Friends have no basis for taking the credit, from the day on which the sale and the decision not to refer were announced, for 500 jobs being preserved, as the Minister stupidly claimed. Indeed, on the basis of the reasons given by the Minister for not referring the sale, it is logical to assume that no reference would have been made if Today had been sold to someone else, as precisely the same factors would have surrounded that transfer. Those factors remain the same whether Tom, Dick, Harry or Harriet is trying to buy.
If that is the case, the Minister knows—he said so in part this afternoon at the Dispatch Box— that at one stage Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail was interested in acquiring the title. The hon. Member for Darlington had better remember one fact about that when he prates on about saving jobs. Lord Rothermere made it perfectly clear that his sole purpose in trying to acquire the Today title was to shut it down, the better to safeguard the flanks of the Daily Mail. That is another reason why Conservative Members should be careful in boasting about jobs being saved and preserved. I believe that time will quickly demonstrate that what they say is not true.
Was it a taste of Murdoch style to come that, on the very day Today trumpeted the news of its purchase, it was under the headline
Big welcome for £38m Today deal"?
The report began:
Politicians and union leaders last night welcomed the purchase of TODAY by Rupert Murdoch's News International group.
Nowhere in that report was there one word of the criticism voiced by Opposition Members and supported by the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). All that had evaporated. Judging by the new Murdoch-style Today, it never happened. I wonder whether that is what was meant by what I suppose passed for a leader, although it was not labelled as such, which modestly claimed that the newspaper under Murdoch would be "aggressively independent". The only thing that is aggressively independent about other Murdoch titles, such as the sewer Sun, is their independence from truth and facts.
Again, nowhere did that leader, or that news story, make it clear that what the leader modestly called
Britain's most energetic newspaper group
includes four other titles—that is, three newspapers and The Sun—or detail Mr. Murdoch's control of a television satellite, or his extensive media interests in the United States, Australia or anywhere else.
My main complaint is that under the present Government—while they prattle on about freedom and freedom of the press—monopoly ownership, and with it a strengthening of uncritical support for the Conservative party, has worsened in the current decade. Ten of the 17 "Fleet street" nationals have changed hands since 1981. The Government's view, which they also apply to radio and television, is that all that counts is the depth of a pocket or purse. Newspapers, television and radio stations — they are all for sale. They are simply other commodities that can be bought by and sold to the highest bidder. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] Conservative Members make the point graphically when they say, "Why not?". Let me try to persuade them. I shall simply say to what is left of the Government Front Bench that, if that is their view, the Government should have the courage to repeal the Fair Trading Act 1973 and wrap up the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I do not want that to happen, but it would be much better than the present deceit.
If the present law is to be retained, it needs toughening. Perhaps a Select Committee could consider the matter, and the Government could undertake tonight to respond positively to its suggestions. Better that than the present position, in which a decision not to refer looks to many, both inside and outside the House, like a belated thank-you present to Mr. Murdoch for his unswerving support for the Conservative party and its leader.
If the law is not changed—this is the worrying aspect — Mr. Murdoch, or anyone else with the cash, can and will buy his way further into our media, and then use that power to assault the commercial position of the few newspapers that criticise the Government, argue for an alternative and represent views that are excluded from any of the titles under Mr. Murdoch's control.
There is a legitimate public interest beyond profitability in all this. In a democracy, the public have the right to a range of titles that reflect differing opinions. The fact that views are held by a minority does not mean that they should not be heard. Competition is about much more than just competition in the market place. It is about the competition of ideas and about arguments for alternative policies within our democracy.
The new technology was said to be the dawn of greater diversity in our press. Three owners and three editors later, Today—the first national child of the new technology—has been swallowed by a media conglomerate owner who makes Citizen Kane look like a democrat. On all three continents where Mr. Murdoch rules, his titles support business men's Governments and their ambitions. It is an awesome power, and it threatens our democracy.
Not at the moment.
That is not simply because Mr. Murdoch interferes with the editorial content of his newspapers but because his staff know from the moment that they are appointed what is expected of them. They know what to write and how to write it. They know also that if they do not do so they will be out of the front door, before they can pick up their hats and coats.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Murdoch newspaper empire is riddled with lies, yet it seems that the hon. Gentleman, his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) and all his colleagues have been relying heavily on extracts from The Sunday Times to support their case. Could he explain that?
The hon. Gentleman's question is too facetious to bother with.
A month ago, Today decided to support the Liberal party and the Social Democrat party in the forthcoming election. Does anyone doubt for a single moment that its advice to voters at the next election will be precisely the same as that given in this election by The Times, The Sunday Times, the News of the World and The Sun—vote Tory? If that does not happen at the next election, I shall give £100 to charity. I shall look to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to remind me of that promise.
I congratulate David Montgomery, the new editor of Today, on his return to journalism. I hope he likes the experience, learns from it and determines to stay with it.
The Opposition have said a great deal this afternoon about the inadequacies of the Fair Trading Act 1973. Scurrilous and perfectly unsustainable attacks have been made on Mr. Rupert Murdoch. A variety of accusations have been levelled against him with not a shred of evidence to sustain them, other than from the book that Mr. Harold Evans published a few years ago in a fit of pique.
In the speech to which the hon. Gentleman is, I believe, referring, I drew attention to the fact that the editor of The Times, who was appointed by Mr. Murdoch, correctly stated in his account of the events that Mr. Murdoch broke all the assurances and guarantees that were offered to Parliament so that the reference would not take place. What is scurrilous about that? That evidence exactly fits the case.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is relying on hearsay from that book. His allegation is based on second-hand information. He has no evidence whatsoever to substantiate it.
Another point that has been completely ignored by the Opposition in their call for changes to the Fair Trading Act 1973 is that section 58(3) of that Act is based on section 8 of the Monopolies and Mergers Act 1965. Who, I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues, passed that legislation? It was the right hon. and learned Gentleman's colleagues in the Labour party who passed section 8 of the Monopolies and Mergers Act 1965. Furthermore, all the essential ingredients of section 58(3) repeat section 8 of the 1965 Act. The facts speak for themselves. If the law needs to be changed, the Opposition were guilty of enacting the legislation that they now criticise.
During the Second Reading of the Monopolies and Mergers Bill on 29 March 1965, the President of the Board of Trade of the then Labour Government said:
what neither a Government, nor even Parliament, can do is to compel the Press to be free, nor even, by Parliamentary decision, make a newspaper pay if the public is not willing to buy it. We have, indeed, allowed for this latter eventuality in the Bill by enabling the Board of Trade to give consent in the case of newspaper mergers if the paper in question has no chance of carrying on successfully with its existing resources.
He went through the various alternatives, which had been agreed by the then Conservative Opposition and Labour Government, that could have formed the basis for a different approach to the law and said:
There are really, I think, only three practical alternatives here if we decide to do anything at all, and none of the three alternatives is very attractive. The first is judgment by some sort of judicial procedure; the second is decision purely by a Minister, who inevitably, or at any rate probably, has political loyalties of some sort; and the third is an inquiry and recommendation to the Government by some sort of administrative tribunal."—[Official Report, 29 March 1965; Vol. 709, c. 1218.]
All these matters were looked into carefully in 1965, and they formed a perfectly balanced set of alternative proposals. The decision that was taken by the then Labour Government and agreed to by the then Conservative Opposition, that was incorporated into the Fair Trading Act 1973 and that forms the legislative basis for these proposals, has already been thoroughly and exhaustively considered. The basis on which the Government have made this decision lies four square within the provisions of that legislation.
Much has been made of the political complexion of Mr. Rupert Murdoch and his newspapers. It may have escaped the attention of the Opposition that in 1974 there were two separate campaigns. The Sun, which at that stage had already been acquired by Mr. Rupert Murdoch, placed itself firmly under the Labour banner. It is absurd for the Opposition to pretend that there is a substantial case for levelling the charge of political partiality against Mr. Rupert Murdoch when The Sun supported the Labour party in 1974. [Laughter.]
Would the hon. Gentleman join me in condemning the scurrilous and vile campaign by The Sun in attempting to demonstrate that the heir to the throne is unbalanced because he visits islands and cares about poverty? Does he agree that any political party that prostitutes itself to a publisher who is prepared to peddle such treachery in the interests of circulation should be deeply ashamed of itself and should be branded as deeply unpatriotic?
The hon. Gentleman makes a series of futile allegations that have absolutely nothing whatever to do with the substance of the debate, so I shall treat them with the contempt that they deserve.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) made clear, Today has played a very significant role in the preservation of the freedom of the press. Furthermore, when faced with a mixture of financial crisis and urgency, the need to sustain that newspaper was self-evident. Therefore, the criteria in the Fair Trading Act 1973 have been subscribed to and complied with, and the basis upon which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State arrived at his decision was entirely reliable and entirely justified.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) suggested that in some way the decision was corrupt. If, under the basis of the legislation as it now stands, the Secretary of State, when arriving at a decision on a discretion, failed to be properly satisfied in law as to the basis upon which he made that decision—in other words, that there was a corrupt basis upon which he had arrived at the decision —that decision would be capable of being impugned at law. In reality there is no such basis, and we look in vain to the Opposition, including the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who no doubt will be replying to the debate, to produce evidence of such corruption and evidence of anything that can justify the impugning of the decision that has already been taken.
This decision was taken in line with other decisions that have been taken in the past — for good and sound reasons. Indeed, over recent years there have been a number of references to the MMC involving national newspapers. There was the one in 1966 when The Times was acquired. There was the 1978 reference in connection with Lonrho's acquisition of Outrams, the publishers of the Glasgow Herald. In 1981 there was the acquisition of The Observer by Lonrho. Therefore, it is not true, as the Opposition have said, that there have been no references in relation to national newspapers that are worth considering, because I have given three examples.
Furthermore, a number of non-references have occurred, including the Evening Standard and Evening News in 1980 and the acquisition of Times Newspapers Ltd. by News International in 1981. Reference has been made to the basis upon which that decision was made then. It was a perfectly proper decision at the time and in the then prevailing circumstances. Indeed, anyone who looks at the consent and the conditions imposed would know that it was a perfectly proper decision that was not capable of being impugned.
There is another aspect of the hypocrisy of the Opposition Benches on this subject. We need only look back to what occurred in July 1969, when Mr. Cudlipp had announced that The Sun would be wound up in January of the following year. At that time The Sun was losing money. The Labour Cabinet considered whether the IPC-Reed merger should go to the MMC. I understand that at the time one of the Secretaries of State, now Mrs. Barbara Castle, went through the motions, weakly supported, so it is said, by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). It was said that there was not one supporter for the reference to the MMC by the Cabinet. For those who wish to look it up, they will find that this occurs in the Crossman diaries of 10 February 1970. These matters were looked into at that time.
According to those diaries, the Prime Minister of the day described the attempt to go through the motions of a reference to the MMC— which was not backed up by any decision to do so as there was not one supporter in favour of it—as "political suicide".
When Labour Members say that reference should have been made on this occasion, it would do them no harm to look at the history of the way in which similar references were dealt with by their own Government when in power. I should also add that the former right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead, Mr. Roy Jenkins, also agreed with the then Prime Minister on the basis that together they had said that the Daily Mirror was the only paper that was loyal to the Labour party.
Labour Members should not be throwing stones, because Mr. Crossman made a very accurate assessment of the position in his diaries, and no one subsequently suggested that it was not an accurate representation of what happened.
This decision was properly taken against the background of the legislation that was originally passed by the Labour party. The decision was fully supported by all the criteria set out in the Act, and there is no basis whatever for the Opposition to continue to criticise the decision, which was entirely justified.
One way of approaching this matter—perhaps the only realistic way in view of' the circumstances—is with a massive dose of cynicism. Many people ask whether it matters, as so many of our tabloids are so bad that they live in the gutter, are debased and degraded, are a disreputable part of the entertainments industry, purveying titillation and sensation, and at election times are merely Conservative leaflets. Therefore, many wonder whether it matters at all, as they regard the tabloid press as a lost cause.
Secondly, many people think that this is a political decision— that Murdoch was so helpful in the election that this is his quid pro quo, his reward for services rendered. We all remember what Murdoch's News of the World did to Deirdre Wood at Greenwich and the lies told in The Sun about Labour councils banning nursery rhymes and so on. People think that the last thing this Government would want to do is to stand in his way.
Before anyone says that that has nothing to do with it, we should remember that this is not the first time that this
Government have helped Murdoch. The Secretary of State and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission were the dogs that did not bark, let alone bite, when this happened in 1981 when Murdoch wanted The Times and The Sunday Times. One loophole in the legislation was whether the papers were making losses. The Secretary of State then said that they were uneconomic. but Harold Evans in his book "Good Times, Bad Times" claimed, and provided evidence, that they were not. We should recall what Murdoch said about Harold Evans in the statement that he issued on the day on which he took over The Times. He said:
I hope that Harold Evans, whom I regard as one of the world's great editors, will continue to serve for a long time".
That was before Mr. Evans was pushed out. But Harold Evans said:
It was Mrs. Thatcher's will which prevailed in the Government discussions on the take-over in 1981".
I heard on 22 January 1981 that she had insisted there would be no monopolies inquiry. Murdoch had stood by her in the dark days and she was going to stand by him. The new Secretary of State for Trade, John Biffen, put it differently when he rose in the Commons five days later, but it added up to approval for Murdoch on condition that he gave various undertakings of editorial independence, which he readily did.
We all know that in his book Harold Evans said that Murdoch broke all those guarantees.
As a member of Sogat 82, I would not believe a word that Murdoch says about anything. I remember what he said to the staff of the News of the World recently. He strung them along and told them that they were going into Wapping. They formed an agreement that they had initialled and were willing to sign. but he broke those undertakings and wanted to sack 5,500 workers without any compensation or redundancy pay.
We should not be so cynical. What sort of newspapers we have does matter. They arc run as businesses, but they are different from most other businesses. It does matter whether they have standards. Why else do we have a Press Council? It may be a toothless tiger, but it is there. Why set up a Monopolies and Mergers Commission? Why else have a framework of accountability for the electronic media that sets standards and requires political balance? It is because we recognise that access to accurate information and news is vital to the working of our democracy. That is why newspapers should not be bought and sold like packets of tea over the counter if it results in monopoly, because monopoly of news is bad for democracy.
Parliament set up three Royal Commissions on the press, in 1949, 1962 and 1977. They all warned against monopoly and recommended action to maintain and create diversity. The second Royal Commission quoted the first when it said:
the monopolist, by its selection of the news and the manner in which it reports it, and by its commentary on public affairs, is in a position to determine what people shall read about the events and issues of the day, and to exert a strong influence on their opinions.
It went on to say:
In addition, the monopoly publisher is in a position to determine who and what shall be investigated and criticised in the area covered by his papers since there he is the principal source of news and comment. Furthermore, a journalist whose writings or investigations clash with the monopolist's policies and purposes may either have to move out of the
region of the monopoly, if he is to stay in his profession, or perhaps compromise or suppress his views and the results of his investigations.
How are we to tackle monopolies, and how are we to create diversity? Other countries have approached it in what we might call the positive way. They have done it by giving subsidies, because they believe that each strand of political thought should have its own newspaper. They give start-up aid and subsidies to newsprint. We have not done that in Britain. We have approached it in what we might call the negative way—that is, to forbid mergers and takeovers.
The 1977 Royal Commission said:
On a reference, the Commission are required to report whether the transfer may be expected to operate against the public interest, taking into account all relevant matters and in particular 'the need for accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion'.
This approach has proved farcical and totally ineffective. It is impossible to point to any occasion when it has proved effective. The Act contains fatal flaws and loopholes that enable the Murdochs of the world to drive a coach and horses through it. Under the Act, the Secretary of State need not refer if the paper is not economic, if the paper is to continue as a separate newspaper or if the case is one of urgency. That is fatal. It completely subverts and undermines the legislation. It only needs someone like Murdoch or Lonrho to say the magic words "This is urgent" or to give a 4 o'clock ultimatum for the Secretary of State immediately to roll on his back like a spaniel and led someone like Murdoch play with his Fair Trading Act. It is all very neat, the legislation is so weak. Experience shows that it is useless and that it is no real barrier to monopoly.
No one can say that Murdoch taking over Today is not a big step towards monopoly. If monopoly is bad, we ought to do something about it. The Chancellor of the Duchy said that it saved the title and saved 500 jobs. He deserved a horse laugh. Last week at Bemrose, Murdoch sacked 750 workers who printed the colour supplement for the News of the World all through the Wapping dispute. Murdoch is to saving jobs what Sweeney Todd was to health care.
No, there is not time.
Murdoch gives absolutely no guarantees at all in respect of the title. One of the attractive things to Mr. Murdoch is the machinery. It gives him facilities to print colour. With all the talk about new technology at Wapping, what a lot of people do not understand is that there is no new technology in the machinery room at Wapping. Those machines are all 17 years old and have been in store. He cannot print colour unless he gets his hands on this colour printing machinery.
If Today's title is to be kept, I am certain that it will bear little relationship to the present paper. I remind the House that The Sun was the original Daily Herald and that Reed International — the Daily Mirror —made the Daily Herald into a tabloid. It did not want two tabloids, so it gave the paper to Murdoch, and we know what he did with it. Today supported the alliance at the last election. If there is an alliance and if there is a Today at the next election —I know they are two big "ifs"—I will wager anyone in the House that Today will not support the alliance.
Some people thought that new technology would radically change the newspaper industry. They said it would mean lower costs and cheap newspapers, that anybody would be able to start their own newspaper and that it would lead to diversity. I did not believe that. They said that it would lead to many new Left-wing newspapers. I looked for this in the United States as the new technology originated there. I could not find any new Left-wing newspapers that had arisen there as a result of new technology.
The argument was that it would greatly reduce labour costs, but the last Royal Commission found that labour costs are only 21 per cent. of a newspaper's costs. The new technology had no effect on the other costs for newsprint and such things. The experience of the Daily Telegraph going over to new technology was that it was so expensive that the paper lost control of it. It is now owned by a Canadian precisely because it went over to the new technology. When Eddie Shah came along with the new technology, we were told that he would run rings around the big boys and break down monopoly. But even his new "cheap" technology newspaper cost £22 million to start up. All that money was lost and many tens of millions of pounds have since gone into it. There have been three changes of ownership and three changes of editorship, and to what end?— to end up being swallowed by Murdoch, the arch-monopolist. So new technology is no solution to the problem of monopoly.
If the slight reduction in costs brought about by the new technology is applied equally to all newspapers, it will not improve the relative position of weaker publications. It will not alter the relative position of competing titles. The proposition now before us is that the first new technology paper be taken over by an arch-monopolist. If we are against monopoly and if it is against public policy and against the spirit of the legislation, why do we allow it? If the Government do allow it, let them abandon the pretence that they are opposed to monopoly.
Murdoch is building a huge monopoly empire across the world of radio, television, cable and newspaper interests—as much as he can get in Australia, as much as he can get in the United States and as much as he can get in Britain. He is willing to sell out his nationality and his soul. He is willing to do anything. He does not like this country. He does not like British people or British institutions. He only uses us to make profits in his newspapers here. He makes more profit from his four British newspapers than he makes from any other par of his empire around the world and he uses those profits to finance further acquisitions in the United States and elsewhere. The Government propose that he be allowed to behave in that way. That must give us pause for thought.
My last point is that market forces in the press will not guarantee diversity. The ineffective monopoly legislation will not guarantee diversity. We must have something else. We have to work towards a new approach. My own party will have to give new thought to this. We need to do two things. First, there ought to be a publicly owned body responsible to Parliament which would acquire and own printing facilities and lease them to any body or group which could show that it could provide a readership and a demand. Secondly, there should be a body to distribute advertising. The old Daily Herald and the old NewsChronicle collapsed when they had circulations of 2 million because they did not get advertising revenue. Anyone who says that a paper with a circulation of 2 million ought to go under is not a true believer in democracy. Inadequate advertising is preventing newspapers being viable. We need a body to distribute advertising fairly among the various papers.
We have spent the afternoon in the House apparently hacking over the near corpse of a relatively small and relatively insignificant ailing business, deciding in our great wisdom whether we think that it should be allowed to die quietly or whether it should be given the kiss of life by Mr. Maxwell, Mr. Murdoch or someone else, as if we somehow or other have power in these matters. Opposition Members have several times demonstrated their xenophobia towards Mr. Murdoch, neglecting to note, as some of my hon. Friends have pointed out, that the majority of our newspaper groups, of which there are at least four prominent ones, rely heavily on the talents and capital of people from abroad, whether they come from Czechoslovakia, Canada or wherever.
I wonder whether that xenophobia on the part of Opposition Members extends to Japanese or American business men who bring business to the hard-pressed parts of the country where some Opposition Members have their constituencies. I am sure that their electors would be interested to know how they feel about foreigners coming here and investing money. I think that it is a jolly good thing.
Several times during the debate the subject of the Fair Trading Act 1973, which subsumes all that we are talking about, and its offshoot, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, has been raised. It was suggested earlier by the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) that the Act was a weak piece of legislation. It was also pointed out that weak legislation of that sort brings the law into disrepute. I would go further and say that the legislation, which is the point of the whole exercise this afternoon, is silly. The fact that the House should he deluded into believing that its role is to interfere in what is a perfectly free business decision between two consenting adults, two newspaper proprietors, as to whether the newspaper has a viable future is nonsense. Legislation on the statute book that allows the House to intervene in this way brings the proceedings of the House into disrepute. We should be considering whether we need that legislation on the statute book at all.
A great deal has been said about monopoly and about Mr. Murdoch building up some great monopoly by which he will influence all our decisions. I am not entirely averse to the idea that the owner of a business should have a strong say in the ethos of that business. If the Today newspaper had had a political stance, it would probably not be in its present position. In fact, it muddled about not having any political market and eventually ended up as a soft Left alliance newspaper, where we know there was not much market to be had. If it has now ended up in the gutter. It is a Left-wing gutter, and not a Right-wing gutter on this occasion.
To suggest that Mr. Murdoch could create a monopoly of newspapers by buying up one here or there is nonsense. In addition to newspapers, we have any number of political and quasi-political magazines that people of Left-wing persuasion can read. There are magazines such as the New Statesman. I believe that the Tribune Group has a magazine, and there is a publication called Labour Weekly. There are dozens of journals and dozens of television and radio programmes where the Left can express its opinion. Best of all, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said on more than one occasion, if the Left feels that it is necessary to have a national newspaper, it can set up and run its own. The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), representing the National Graphical Association, has pointed out that his interests lie in that direction
We have a piece of legislation that we should he reconsidering. Fair trade is brought about by an open, competitive market. The fact that we are debating this issue now suggests that the House is attempting to constrain open competiton. We do not want legislation to restrict that in any way.
The hon. Gentleman ought to know that a monopoly can be effective only if it is backed up by the power of Government legislation. As long as there is no method of force for keeping out competition, one cannot have a monopoly. A monopoly is something that Governments can have, but they cannot be created by the private sector. The more open the market is allowed to be, the less chance there is of the sort of restriction about which Opposition Members are complaining.
We want less of the Fair Trading Act. I suggest that we should reconsider the whole thing if it leads us to spend the entire afternoon debating nonsense such as the future of a relatively insignificant newspaper. We should adopt the attitude that the best possible way in which Opposition Members as well as my hon. Friends can get their points of view across is to keep the market as open as possible. It is competition that brings variety to the customer, not the sort of restrictive or semi-restrictive legislation that the Fair Trading Act represents.
Would the hon. Lady extend her argument to television? Would she say that the people who pay for advertising on television should have the power and the right to dictate what television programmes and channels exist, and what the political complexion of the programmes should be? If she does not say that the power of advertising money should dictate the complexion of television, what is her logical argument for saying that the same market forces should have absolute power over newspapers?
Advertisers would be interested to hear the hon. Gentleman say that they dictate the nature of the programmes around which their advertisements are placed. I am sure that they would like to have that power. The important thing is that that does not happen.
Television is not nearly open enough. We need more competition on television and radio, and I hope that we will move in that direction. Rupert Murdoch, as the financial proprietor of the newspaper, is not wrong in wishing to have some say in the way in which the newspaper goes. It is perfectly logical. If Eddie Shah had newspaper had a political position, it might not have been dying on its feet today. Because the public could not identify its position, they did not buy it. It deteriorated gradually from a mixed bag of opinions into a soft-Left newspaper, and then lost its readership. It is now lucky to be rescued by Mr. Murdoch so that at least the machinery may be used to provide jobs and so on.
One cannot expect someone who owns a business not to have a say in the way in which it moves, the type of product it produces, and the general tone and direction of it. Legislation that allows us to believe that we have some say in a straight commercial market decision is nonsense and wastes the time of the House.
I will not give way. With respect, we have heard quite enough. I find that comment extraordinary, as I found her other comments. She said that monopoly cannot occur unless the Government cause it. At present, three people, Maxwell, Murdoch and Stevens, control about 80 per cent. of the dissemination of popular printed information in this country. If that is not technically a monopoly, it is bloody near. They are three people with a particular point of view. There are about five people who have a basic monopoly over the whole of western Europe in the popular dissemination of news. For example, there is Berlusconi in Italy and France.
During the entire debate Conservative Members, certainly the hon. Member for Billericay, have not understood the offensive nature of discussing newspapers as if they were commodities to be bought and sold at some sort of auction. At least Beaverbrook was honest when he said that he retained his newspapers in order to create propaganda. Conservative Members— the hon. Member for Billericay and the Minister — think that the first criterion for the preservation of a newspaper is profitability.
Throughout history there have been battles for freedom and for freedom for expression in order to achieve that freedom. There was the fight against the Stamp Acts, the fight against censorship, and now the fight against monopoly by cash. That is the position we are facing. It is nonsense to think that the individual outside has as much power in terms of the dissemination of views, as much freedom in terms of expression and, therefore, as much freedom, as Mr. Murdoch. He has 11 million times more chance of expressing his view than an individual voice outside.
I am told by the Minister that the Government could not interfere in the sense of making a judgment on the case. They could decide only whether it should be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. One of the weaknesses of the argument may be that they would not have an opportunity to listen to the views of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
My God, only a year ago in this House two Cabinet Ministers lost their jobs because they were busy interfering in an industry, Westland. Then, there was plenty of interference over a straightforward commercial transaction. Therefore, the Minister cannot come to this House and give us the hypocrisy that this Government are not interested in commercial decisions. They are interested, and there are two ex-Cabinet Ministers on the Back Benches to prove that.
The second reason why we are upset is the result of the comments made by the hon. Member for Billericay during her speech. The hon. Lady accused us of xenophobia, but let me tell the hon. Lady that I spent the entire afternoon trying to prevent the xenophobia of her Government keeping out someone from Pakistan who should be coming here.
Today, I received two letters. One was from my brother-in-law in Canada, who is white, to tell me that he will be coming over here for a month this summer. His letter was not a request for me to make representations so that he may obtain a visa. He can come over— he is white. My brother will arrive on the date that he told me. The other letter was about Mohammed Shafri, who is in Pakistan. He has done the 40-mile trip to Islamabad twice in an attempt to process an application to appear in Britain at the wedding of his widowed sister's daughter so that he may give her away at the ceremony. That application has been refused because of the xenophobia of the Government.
Therefore, we are offended for two reasons, first because of the hypocrisy of Conservative Members in relation to such problems and secondly, because of the Government's failure to understand that we are not dealing with simple commodities. We do not believe that we should leave freedom of expression to the vagaries of the market place or allow the freedom of the big and powerful to dictate and determine.
The hon. Member for Billericay knows perfectly well how Mr. Murdoch uses his papers. He certainly uses his papers to make points, but above all he uses them to make profit. In the process he is prepared to let the precious written word degenerate into the gutter, as he has helped the degeneration of the entire popular press of the country.
I am against monoply, whether on the part of Murdoch or Maxwell. I certainly believe that it is valuable that those men took opposing views during the election. I agreed with the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), who spoke for the alliance— if I may still call it an alliance. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman said that it was a small voice, but that at least it spoke on behalf of the alliance.
I believe that it is a crime for us to pretend that there is freedom, liberty and democracy when there is a virtual monopoly of the printed word in Britain. It does not stop there. We have seen the Peacock report and the Green Paper on television and radio. Both those documents endorse exactly what the hon. Member for Billericay wants. They want to get rid of restrictive legislation and make it a free-for-all so that the hon. Lady and myself can own a radio station. She nods. Can the hon. Lady afford to open a television station tomorrow? She cannot and I cannot, but Maxwell and Murdoch can. The hon. Lady does not share the same freedom of equality as Mr. Maxwell and Mr. Murdoch.
This so-called freedom is the freedom of two, three or five people to express their point of view and not the freedom of the many. If we want freedom for the many we must understand the nature of freedom in our society. If we want freedom for the many we cannot give power to Maxwell, Murdoch, or to Berlusconi. The power of freedom must be exercised by the social will of the community.
The hon. Gentleman, in common with so many of his hon. Friends, is obsessed with the monopoly aspect in this affair. The hon. Gentleman says that he could not afford to open up a radio station, but the Labour party could. The Labour party could also open a newspaper. However, the problem may be that if the Labour party opened a radio station or launched a newspaper nobody would listen to it or read it. Is that what the hon. Gentleman is concerned about?
It is extremely interesting that the hon. Gentleman should make the rights of one man, Murdoch, the equivalent of the rights of some 11 million trade unionists or members of the Labour party. Thus we arrive at the equation that 10 million equals one, whether it is Murdoch or Maxwell. There is no equality of freedom unless the 11 million have the same power that Maxwell and Murdoch exercise.
I wish to discuss the effect of this decision on another current case, that of The Scotsman. The Scotsman was first acquired by Roy Thompson, almost in the same month as the Manchester Guardian changed its name to The Guardian. Indeed, Mr. Roy Thompson had to be prevented from seeking to change The Scotsman to "The Man." The Scotsman is one of the two quality newspapers in Scotland. Indeed, there are other good newspapers in Scotland, above all the one published by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunningham, North (Mr. Wilson), "The West Highlands Free Press." That is a welcome addition, though it does not have quite such a large circulation as The Sun.
At present, The Scotsmanis at the centre of an honourable strike. The journalists want to retain the freedom to be able to report this place to the readers of The Scotsmanand not to be restricted to reporting this place only from the viewpoint and in the interest of the entire regions of Great Britain — largely, incidentally, for evening papers. In other words, if the group that controls The Scotsmanhas its way, the voice of that paper will be chopped by those who control that newspaper, Thompson Regional Newspapers. That is what is happening within the Maxwell and Murdoch groups. Those groups, by acquiring another paper, or another group, prevent the wider dissemination of news and prevent diversity of opinion.
The tool they use for that end is the new technology. Peacock and the Tory party have argued that new technology opens up freedom of expression, but it has had the exactly opposite effect. Eddie Shah has been praised today for ensuring greater ease of publication and ease of presentation by using new technology. However, the effect of new technology has been to act as an instrument to reduce the variety of the press rather than increase it. It has been used not to allow greater diversity of ownership, but to reduce ownership. The end point of competition is monopoly. For that reason there become fewer people with ownership and less diversity of views. Such is the problem we face.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) spoke powerfully on behalf of the print unions and said that there were solutions. The hon. Member for Billericay thought that the best solution was to scrap everything and let the powerful have their way. History has shown that when the powerful have their way, millions have suffered. The solution to this issue of crucial and social importance is to exercise some social responsibility for it. There was a laugh when my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East said that printing presses could be established by the Government and groups should be allowed to hire them and pay for their use to enable them to publish. That practice is followed in the extremely good democracy of Sweden. There is no reason why it should not happen here. In addition to such liberating methods we can use restrictive methods and say that no man should own more than X number of titles.
I should have thought that one newspaper is enough for any one man. Apparently, Murdoch thought on similar lines earlier on this year when he said:
We all slow down as we get older. I and my colleagues have put together a very important group of newspapers, magazines and television properties. Now we should move into a mature phase where we improve them all, and just vvork at them. We have enough.
That was in January. However, he did not have enough, because he has now bought Today. Either Mr. 'Murdoch was telling the truth or he was telling a lie. If he was telling a lie that is all the more reason why we should deplore the Government's decision to let him have his way. If he was speaking the truth when he said, "We have enough," it means that he has, no doubt, bought Today to acquire the machinery in the interests of competition rather than to run that newspaper.
Among other things, this gross interference affects the liberty of the readership.
The hon. Lady shakes her head. She wants freedom to control the 300,000 newspapers that are printed each day, but what about the freedom of those 300,000 people who wanted to read that particular newspaper which is now changing hands?
The central argument that is facing us in this debate is not the technicalities of sending a bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission or the technicalities of the Government's stupid decision. It is a question of freedom, liberty and democracy. The sooner we come to understand that, the better. The Government's actions, the Peacock report and their decision of last week have stood freedom on its head. They are saying that they seek to give freedom to the rich and powerful at the expense of the many. 'The people had better face up to that because freedom and democracy will be the critical linchpin at the next election.
After that speech by the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan), we should get back to some of the commercial realities.
Today was questionably viable. Its readership was too low to sustain it. If readership is too low, the inevitable consequence is that the advertising also becomes low. One can be sure of one thing about advertisers: they are impartial about which newspapers they advertise in. If advertising is leaving a newspaper, it will not survive.
The newspaper was about to close for perfectly good commercial reasons, that it was losing about £500,000 a week. That is an unsustainable financial position for any newspaper. Investors were needed to make up the amount of money per week that was necessary to keep the newspaper going.
Few investors are prepared to put about £38 million into a newspaper. If the Government's policies have time to continue, there will be many more investors with that sort of money, but at the moment the number of people who can invest that sort of money in such a loss-making venture with the prospect of turning it round is not large. It is worth considering who the potential investors in the newspaper were.
First—we have heard it from Labour Members—we have the desire for an owner of a newspaper to come forward who is politically uncommitted, does not own any other newspapers and would allow editorial freedom—in other words, a man who is rare on the newspaper publishing scene and on the commercial scene in general. Perhaps Labour Members would consider such a man to be Mr. Robert Maxwell. For all his many undoubted virtues as a newspaper proprietor, when it came to it, he was not prepared to put the money up front to rescue that newspaper.
As I am sure many other hon. Members did, I read in The Sunday Times the description of the negotiations before the takeover. It was apparent that Mr. Maxwell's offer, if such it was, was a nebulous, "Cash tomorrow or some time in the future." It was not a real rescue of that newspaper—
As my hon. Friend says, perhaps it can be described kindly as a political stunt.
The second option which has been suggested is that certain hon. Members or their friends outside the House could have had a whip round and bought the newspaper. That is not such an outrageous suggestion as we might think because something similar happened with News on Sunday. Highly politically committed local councils, finding themselves in control of certain funds on a trustee basis, mainly pension funds of their employees in the town hall, felt it appropriate to invest those funds in a highly speculative newspaper venture, News on Sunday,which would have a particular political leaning. At the moment. in its final death throes, it is losing the pension funds of those councils large amounts of money. We must be extremely grateful that hon. Members' friends outside the House did not feel it appropriate to dip into the money that was in trust yet again to rescue yet another paper. The pensioners will be more grateful than anybody else that it has not happened. If it had, they would have been left with relatively little in their pension fund.
The third option was Mr. Murdoch. He is no saint. I do not suppose that any of my hon. Friends would consider that any of us have a brief to support him, but in the past he has proved himself a saviour of newspapers. He also has the commercial ability to put a newspaper back in order when it is losing money. I am sure that hon. Members and many people outside the House would rather have a viable Today than pie in the sky tomorrow.
In this debate, the Government had the task to convince the House and the public that they acted correctly in instantly approving the takeover and not referring it to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster surprised the House by the feebleness of his attempt to make that case, but at least he attempted to do so. His case was that Todaywas uneconomic, that there was acute urgency and that the Secretary of State did everything that he could to fulfil his responsibilities under the Fair Trading Act.
Because virtually nobody else on the Conservative Benches made a case, apart from repeating the fact that there was no alternative, it is worth looking at what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said. He said that the economic case was the simple and least controversial part. The reports and facts that he gave the House were mixed. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) referred to reports in the UK Press Gazette that Lonrho executives said that Today was shaping up nicely. Indeed, for several weeks the UK Press Gazette has reported that senior executives of Lonrho such as Mr. Nick Morell said that they were optimistic about Today's chances. But those are reports. We should look at the facts. The facts, which no Conservative Member has recognised, or stated, are that Today's circulation has been going up every single month for the past six months. Yesterday the figure was 337,000. Is that failure to increase circulation every month for the past six months?
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East also told us that Mr. Rowland, speaking while on holiday in Split, said:
We think the losses on the paper can soon be minimised … we know the ore is at 1.600 feet so we'll keep digging.
Perhaps Conservative Members do not like reports and would prefer facts. The facts are before us. As the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) said, Mr. Murdoch was prepared to put in his cash—£38 million — because he believed that it was economic. In that mixture of reports and facts, all that we heard from the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was that there was a resolution of the board and that there was evidence. But we never heard what that evidence was. It was unspecified.
Why was the matter urgent? Lonrho bought the newspaper when it was loss-making. It knew what the problems were. It must have been confident of solving them. It knew the investment that would have to be made. The Chancellor just said that there was a resolution of the board and that he had evidence, but again he failed to tell the House what the evidence was. If he is to reach the core of the debate, which is whether the Secretary of State acted responsibily, he and the Government owe it to the House to put that evidence in front of us. Where is it? We must see it.
I ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to place a memorandum of material in the Library of the House immediately after the debate, showing all the detailed working papers that he had, and the evidence that was put in front of him and the Secretary of State, so that we can see it and so that we and the public can make our own judgment on the facts which were before the Secretary of State.
There was a good precedent for that in 1981. The then Secretary of State put a memorandum of material in the Library. I have it here. I ask the Secretary of State, or the Chancellor, on his behalf', to place a similar, I hope more detailed, memorandum in the Library of the House immediately after the debate.
It is not just a matter of having those facts. The House needs to know what questions the Secretary of State asked those gentlemen when they came to see him. What questions did he ask about the financial position of Today? What questions about the assets, the printing works, the property or the good will were asked? What questions about the losses; what questions about the overheads, debts or interest charges? How did he separate the losses attributable to Today on Sunday from those of Today? How did he seek to separate the figures in Lonrho's audited accounts for Today from the rest of Lonrho's accounts figures that were set before him'? I presume that they were put in front of' the Secretary of State. The House needs an answer about how he approached those figures.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that what is required is that the Secretary of State should be satisfied that the newspaper is not a going concern, economically, as a separate paper? The Secretary of State needs adequate information for that. There is no point in compiling information upon information once there is sufficient information to satisfy him on that point. There is no point in proving something six times over. Does the hon. Gentleman seriously doubt that this was a heavily loss-making newspaper that was viable only with a circulation of about 700,000?
On the contrary, what the House and the public need to know is that the facts were there and that the Secretary of State saw them. The public need to see those facts, too. The Secretary of State should recognise that the facts were given before, and we need to know them now. I trust that he will put them before the House. Without them, it is impossible for the House to decide whether the Secretary of State acted properly and wisely.
What questions did he put on the future prospects of the paper? Did he ask for an independent valuation, or did he—as with so much else in the case—simply take the word of Lonrho executives? Did they say, "These are the facts." Did he say, take your word for it entirely. I do not need any independent valuation of my own."? That seems surprising and, if true, it shows a cavalier attitude to the facts.
There is the issue of the timing of events, too. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, on behalf of the Secretary of State, made great play of the urgency of the situation. Let us examine that urgency. Will he tell the House—if not, I will ask him a written question, and he can answer in writing — when he first met the representatives of Lonrho and of News International? Was it on Tuesday, or Wednesday morning? Did he, by any chance, meet Mr. Robinson or Mr. Nick Morell on Wednesday morning? Was it on that occasion that these facts and this evidence were put to the Government? If that was the occasion, was it done in writing or verbally?
If it was in writing, and I am right in thinking that it was done on Wednesday morning, the House will know that that was four, five or at most six hours before the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster came before the House to make a statement that the Secretary of State had been totally satisfied by all the evidence. So, the Secretary of State is asking us to believe that, in six hours, the accountants in the DTI went through the evidence and saw that the paper was wholly uneconomic and that there was an overwhelming urgency about the case. Six hours of scrutiny!
The Government should be ashamed of themselves. At least in the 1981 case the Secretary of State will recall that it took a whole week for the Department of Trade and Industry to conclude that the case was well-founded. In this case, unless the Government care to tell me that I am wrong, we have been told that the paper's fate was decided and that the Government were satisfied within a maximum of five or six hours.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the break-even point in circulation for the newspaper was 700,000, and that its actual circulation was 300,000? Does he further accept that it had been making serious losses from the moment that it had been set up and that no one has seriously questioned for an instant that it was making serious losses at the time?
No one is in a position to analyse in detail or to question the figures, because no one apart from the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has seen them. If the public—[Interruption.] The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster now says that everybody knows about them. What does everyone know? Not a single fact has been put before the House that everyone knows. The Chancellor should understand that the figures are rather more difficult than he says they are. It will be a matter of considerable accountancy skill to withdraw the relevant figures from Lonrho's audited accounts. If the right hon. Gentleman does not understand that, he should re-examine them.
The Government have made a decision on virtually no evidence. That brings no credit to the Government or the legislation. The Government have simply rolled over and said, "We take your word for it. We don't need the figures. Even if you give us the figures a mere four or five hours beforehand, we will be satisfied and not ask questions about their accuracy." That is the case that is so overwhelming that it does not need to comply with the legislation and go to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster started with some sweet words about the public interest and about how our national press needs diversity and independence. In general, we no longer have that. Three companies own 71·5 per cent. of our national dailies. Three companies own 81·7 per cent. of our Sunday circulation. In this case, News International, with five titles, owns 32 per cent. of our dailies, and 33 per cent. of the total. That represents 10·8 million papers sold every week, out of a total of only 32 million sold in this country.
Mr. Rupert Murdoch, on "Panorama" in January. said:
We have enough in this country. We are now going to improve our product.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have seen from recent editions of The Sun how improved that product has been. Mr. Murdoch, however, should not be taken lightly. He is a ruthless and ambitious man who—[Interruption.] If hon. Members doubt that, they Mould, perhaps, look at his interests in radio, television cable, satellite, film and broadcasting. If they believe that he has satisfied his desire for media control in this country, they should know that he now owns 75 per cent. of Australian
print media. It is that cross-media ownership that is so dangerous. All hon. Members should be aware of the situation. It is possible that, in the next 10 years, we shall turn around and discover that Mr. Murdoch and people like him own our cultural media. That is not a light matter.
Every other country recognises that that is a problem. Almost all have specific legislation to protect themselves from it. In Italy, there is specific anti-trust legislation, with a 20 per cent. maximum. In France, there is a 30 per cent. maximum. In Sweden and Norway, there is specific, positive legislation to encourage pluralism. Even the United States has legislation preventing cross-media ownership whereby no paper and television station in the same city may have the same owner. We should have the same concern here.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East referred to the Broadcasting Act 1981, which forbids ownership of ITV companies except by British and EEC nationals, and which affects the concentration of ownership. That is because we recognise that television and broadcasting are powerful media. The same is true of the newspaper industry. We badly need to protect ourselves from a concentration of ownership by specific legislation.
The lack of scrutiny by the Government shows that, whereas they have a duty to safeguard the public interest, they have been stampeded by Mr. Murdoch, who has put a pistol to their heads. They have not even bothered to acquaint themselves with the facts. I hope they will now do so, and put those facts before the House and the public. They have reached completely the wrong decision. The Conservative Government are now not only pawns of the City and the friends of deregulation but, effectively, the party of private monopoly. I invite the House to join the Opposition and vote for our amendment and against this appalling abnegation of responsibility by the Government.
The debate has taken place in a calmer atmosphere than that which prevailed on Wednesday. I had hoped that a period of calm would have enouraged some Opposition Members to realise that their rejection of the decision made by my right hon. Friend the Seceretary of State was misguided.
The Fair Trading Act, like its predecessor, does not require a Monopolies and Mergers Commission examination in every case. It sensibly recognises that there may be circumstances when time will not permit such an examination. In such cases, if the newspaper is to continue as a separate newspaper—as was the case with Today—and it is uneconomic as a going concern, the Secretary of State may give his consent without an examination.
It astounds me that some Opposition Members should have suggested that Today is still economic as a going concern. No rational person could sustain such an argument. The paper has made losses since its inception. It has already had to be rescued once and further losses lie ahead. Losses of up to £30 million a year have been widely quoted and are not far wrong.
The owners of the paper had concluded that enough was enough and that if the paper could not be sold quickly it would have to be closed. It has been suggested that Lonrho was bluffing and that my right hon. Friend should have called that bluff. That would have been wholly irresponsible. He had in front of him a resolution from Lonrho's board saying that it would close Today at midnight if a reference was made. It had apparently decided some time previously that in view of the substantial and continuing losses being made by Today, it would not fund the paper, in any event, beyond 30 June.
My right hon. Friend did not even have to rely on that evidence alone. No more than three weeks previously, Lonrho had closed Today on Sunday. The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) reminded us that the Sunday Standard, based in Glasgow, had been closed by Lonrho — "whimsically", according to the hon. Gentleman. With that evidence before us. it is not surprising that my right hon. Friend decided that he could not take the risk with the newspaper and with people's jobs.
Against that hard evidence, the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) seriously suggests that the Secretary of State should have taken a different view, on the basis of a report in a Maxwell paper of a telephone conversation with Mr. Tiny Rowland on holiday in Split.
I recollect from the time when I practised at the Bar that there is a rule called the best evidence rule. I do not know whether it applies in Scottish law.
I am an English lawyer. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman had been called upon to choose between those two forms of evidence, as he might have been in the long-gone days when he was Secretary of State for Trade, he could have made no other decision than that made by my right hon. Friend.
There is no serious dispute about the facts. Today was an uneconomic paper. The hon. Gentleman seemed to argue that it was difficult to disentangle the figures for News (UK) Ltd. from those for the rest of Lonrho. But News (UK) Ltd. is a separate company—a 90 per cent. subsidiary of Lonrho. It was not difficult to extract the figures because there was a continuing subsidy from Lonrho. There is no confusion. It was a clear, straightforward case. Today was uneconomic and was heading for the rocks. It would have been wholly irresponsible to take a risk with it.
My right hon. Friend did not even need to be satisfied that there would be an immediate closure. There needed only to be a serious risk that the paper would not survive for the time taken by an MMC reference. I remind the House that the last transfer of a newspaper referred to the MMC—Fleet Holdings to United Newspapers—took five months to be cleared. Does anyone seriously suggest that Lonrho would have been prepared to keep the paper going for five months with such losses?
In the face of that evidence it would have been a foolhardly gamble to assume that Lonrho was bluffing. The 500 people whose jobs depend on the survival of Today are heartily relieved that my right hon. Friend did not take that reckless gamble. It has been suggested that my right hon. Friend should have imposed conditions on the transfer. There could be only two reasons for doing that: either to ensure that Today continued as a separate newspaper—no one has seriously suggested that that is not Mr. Murdoch's intention; all the commercial logic points in that direction—or to guarantee editorial freedom. There was clearly a case for imposing such conditions in the transfers of The Times, The Sunday Times and The Observer—
No. I must get on. I have a lot of points to deal with.
The Times, The Sunday Times and The Observer were well established and substantial newspapers of considerable national importance. Today is of recent origin and has only a tiny market share—no more than 2·5 per cent. of the market even for popular dailies. It could not have been justifiable to impose conditions in such a case.
Listening to some Opposition Members one would think that choice and diversity in our newspaper market were declining. The reverse is true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) pointed out in his powerful speech. There are now 11 companies with national newspaper interests, compared with only nine 10 years ago. There are two additional companies with national newspaper interests. If that is regarded as a reduction of choice and diversity, that is an odd definition.
In the past 10 years no fewer than six new national newspapers have come into existence, some free-standing and some from within existing groups. The implied suggestion by Opposition Members that there is a wicked capitalist conspiracy to freeze out newspapers is manifestly absurd. That contention was demonstrated ad absurdum by the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) in a contribution of advanced paranoia, couched in the most insulting and offensive terms. I think that when he reflects on it in the morning he will be somewhat ashamed of that speech.
It has never been easier to establish a new newspaper. New technologies and the increasing practice of subcontracting the printing mean that start-up costs are comparatively modest. There is nothing to prevent anyone of any political stance from setting up a new paper, as the recent establishment of The Independent and News on Sunday demonstrate. However, once a newspaper is established, its success and the maintenance of the jobs involved depend on customers buying copies of the paper. No one can compel them to do so.
There is a wide range and variety of newspapers within a comparatively narrow price band and I found somewhat disquieting various suggestions made by Opposition Members, including the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) who has referred contemptuously to the gutter press and on Wednesday referred to the "degrading standard of journalism". The right hon. Gentleman ought to remember that no fewer than 8 million people buy the Daily Mirror, The Sun and the Daily Star and many more people see those papers. It is offensively arrogant for the right hon. Gentleman to assume that he is right and all those people are wrong. That attitude may go some way to explain the convincing and shattering electoral defeat of the Labour party.
Much of the debate has been about the nature of the proprietors involved. Mr. Murdoch has been accused of being a foreigner, of inhibiting editorial freedom and of supporting the Conservative party. We may have all sorts of opinions about the proprietors. The fact that a paper is technically foreign owned may be of slight interest, but I doubt whether it makes much difference in reality. I doubt whether it makes a substantial difference to the Daily Mirror that it is owned by a Liechtenstein-based company.
We should not have to decide between the relative merits of newspaper proprietors and about whether Mr. Murdoch is better than Mr. Maxwell or Mr. Tiny Rowland and which has the better record of defending editorial independence. That would be wrong. and the legislation does not allow the Secretary of State to make such decisions.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), I come from a newspaper family. There are some differences. His family owned newspapers and mine worked for newspapers, but I mind about newspapers and about the survival of Today. It would not have been tolerable for the Government to take a callous gamble with the survival of that newspaper and the 500 jobs that go with it.
This debate has been shot through with rancour and hatred from the Opposition. Their rancour arises from the wounding rejection that they received from the electorate and because they are so desperate to find a scapegoat for their disaster. We always hear the same cry, that it was the people who were wrong and that they were misled by the wicked capitalist press. The people were not misled and saw through the Labour party.
The Opposition showed a hatred of Mr. Murdoch and that was exemplified in the speeches by the hon. Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) and for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan). That hatred of Mr. Murdoch made nonsense of the contention that they have some high-minded conviction and that the nature of a proprietor does not matter. The Opposition hate Murdoch and that is why they are so agitated about this whole business. Does anyone suggest that if Mr. Maxwell had come forward with an application the Opposition would have made all this fuss? Of course they would not, and they did not make any fuss about it before. The Government's decision is right and I strongly commend it to the House.
|Division No. 6]||[7 pm|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Boateng, Paul|
|Allen, Graham||Boothroyd, Miss Betty|
|Anderson, Donald||Boyes, Roland|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Bradley, Keith|
|Armstrong, Ms Hilary||Bray, Dr Jeremy|
|Ashley, Rt Hon Jack||Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)|
|Ashton, Joe||Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)|
|Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)||Buchan, Norman|
|Barron, Kevin||Buckley, George|
|Battle, John||Caborn, Richard|
|Beckett, Margaret||Callaghan, Jim|
|Beith, A. J.||Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Campbell-Savours, D. N|
|Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)||Canavan, Dennis|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Cartwright, John|
|Blair, Tony||Clark, Dr David (S Shields)|
|Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)||Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil|
|Clay, Bob||Lambie, David|
|Clelland, David||Lamond, James|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Cohen, Harry||Leighton, Ron|
|Coleman, Donald||Lestor, Miss Joan (Eccles)|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||Lewis, Terry|
|Cook, Robin (Livingston)||Litherland, Robert|
|Corbett, Robin||Livingstone, Ken|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Livsey, Richard|
|Cousins, Jim||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Cox, Tom||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Crowther, Stan||Loyden, Eddie|
|Cryer, Bob||McAllion, John|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||McAvoy, Tom|
|Cunningham, Dr John||McCartney, Ian|
|Dalyell, Tam||McFall, John|
|Darling, Alastair||McKelvey, William|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||McLeish, Henry|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)||McTaggart, Bob|
|Dewar, Donald||McWilliam, John|
|Dixon, Don||Madden, Max|
|Dobson, Frank||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Dunnachie, James||Marek, Dr John|
|Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)|
|Eastham, Ken||Martin, Michael (Springburn)|
|Evans, John (St Helens N)||Martlew, Eric|
|Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)||Maxton, John|
|Fatchett, Derek||Meacher, Michael|
|Faulds, Andrew||Meale, Alan|
|Fearn, Ronald||Michael, Alun|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)||Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)|
|Fisher, Mark||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce|
|Flannery, Martin||Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)|
|Flynn, Paul||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Morgan, Rhodri|
|Foster, Derek||Morley, Elliott|
|Foulkes, George||Morris, Rt Hon A (W'shawe)|
|Fraser, John||Morris, Rt Hon J (Aberavon)|
|Fyfe, Mrs Maria||Mowlam, Mrs Marjorie|
|Galbraith, Samuel||Mullin, Chris|
|Garrett, John (Norwich South)||Murphy, Paul|
|Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)||Nellist, Dave|
|George, Bruce||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon|
|Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||O'Brien, William|
|Godman, Dr Norman A.||O'Neill, Martin|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Gordon, Ms Mildred||Pendry, Tom|
|Gould, Bryan||Pike, Peter|
|Graham, Thomas||Powell, Ray (Ogmore)|
|Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)||Prescott, John|
|Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)||Primarolo, Ms Dawn|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Grocott, Bruce||Radice, Giles|
|Harman, Ms Harriet||Randall, Stuart|
|Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Redmond, Martin|
|Haynes, Frank||Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn|
|Healey, Rt Hon Denis||Reid, John|
|Heffer, Eric S.||Richardson, Ms Jo|
|Henderson, Douglas||Roberts, Allan (Bootle)|
|Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)||Robertson, George|
|Holland, Stuart||Robinson, Geoffrey|
|Home Robertson, John||Rogers, Allan|
|Hood, James||Rooker, Jeff|
|Howarth, George (Knowsley N)||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)||Rowlands, Ted|
|Howells, Geraint||Ruddock, Ms Joan|
|Hughes, John (Coventry NE)||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Sheerman, Barry|
|Hughes, Roy (Newport E)||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Short, Clare|
|Ingram, Adam||Skinner, Dennis|
|Janner, Greville||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|John, Brynmor||Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)||Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)|
|Jones, leuan (Ynys Môn)||Snape, Peter|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)||Soley, Clive|
|Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald||Spearing, Nigel|
|Steel, Rt Hon David||Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)|
|Steinberg, Gerald||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Stott, Roger||Williams, Rt Hon A. J.|
|Straw, Jack||Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)|
|Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)||Wilson, Brian|
|Taylor, Matthew (Truro)||Winnick, David|
|Thomas, Dafydd Elis||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Turner, Dennis||Worthington, Anthony|
|Wall, Pat||Wray, James|
|Walley, Ms Joan||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Wardell, Gareth (Gower)||Mr. Ron Davies and|
|Wareing, Robert N.||Mr. Allen McKay.|
|Adley, Robert||Dykes, Hugh|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Emery, Sir Peter|
|Alexander, Richard||Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Fallon, Michael|
|Allason, Rupert||Favell, Tony|
|Amess, David||Fenner, Dame Peggy|
|Amos, Alan||Fookes, Miss Janet|
|Arbuthnot, James||Forman, Nigel|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||French, Douglas|
|Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)||Gale, Roger|
|Ashby, David||Garel-Jones, Tristan|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Goodhart, Sir Philip|
|Atkins, Robert||Gorman, Mrs Teresa|
|Atkinson, David||Gorst, John|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Gow, Ian|
|Baldry, Tony||Gower, Sir Raymond|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)|
|Bellingham, Henry||Greenway, John (Rydale)|
|Bendall, Vivian||Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)|
|Benyon, W.||Grist, Ian|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Ground, Patrick|
|Biggs-Davison, Sir John||Grylls, Michael|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)|
|Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Body, Sir Richard||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Hanley, Jeremy|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Hannam, John|
|Boswell, Tim||Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)|
|Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)||Harris, David|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Haselhurst, Alan|
|Bowis, John||Hawkins, Christopher|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes||Hayes, Jerry|
|Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard||Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Hayward, Robert|
|Brazier, Julian||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Bright, Graham||Heddle, John|
|Brittan, Rt Hon Leon||Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)||Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)||Hind, Kenneth|
|Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Holt, Richard|
|Burns, Simon||Hordern, Sir Peter|
|Burt, Alistair||Howard, Michael|
|Butcher, John||Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)|
|Butler, Chris||Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)|
|Carrington, Matthew||Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)|
|Carttiss, Michael||Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)|
|Cash, William||Hunt, David (Wirral W)|
|Chapman, Sydney||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)|
|Chope, Christopher||Hunter, Andrew|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Irvine, Michael|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Irving, Charles|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Jack, Michael|
|Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)||Janner, Greville|
|Day, Stephen||Jessel, Toby|
|Devlin, Tim||Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Jones, Robert B (Herts W)|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Moss, Malcolm|
|Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine||Moynihan, Hon C.|
|Key, Robert||Mudd, David|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)||Needham, Richard|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Nelson, Anthony|
|Knapman, Roger||Neubert, Michael|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)||Newton, Tony|
|Knowles, Michael||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Knox, David||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Lamont, Rt Hon Norman||Nicholson, Miss E. (Devon W)|
|Lang, Ian||Onslow, Cranley|
|Latham, Michael||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Page, Richard|
|Lee, John (Pendle)||Paice, James|
|Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)||Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil|
|Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)||Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Lightbown, David||Pawsey, James|
|Lilley, Peter||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)||Portillo, Michael|
|Lord, Michael||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Luce, Rt Hon Richard||Price, Sir David|
|Lyell, Sir Nicholas||Raffan, Keith|
|McCrindle, Robert||Raison, Rt Hon Timothy|
|Macfarlane, Neil||Rathbone, Tim|
|MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)||Redwood, John|
|Maclean, David||Renton, Tim|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)||Riddick, Graham|
|McNair-Wilson. P. (New Forest)||Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas|
|Madel, David||Ridsdale, Sir Julian|
|Major, Rt Hon John||Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)|
|Malins, Humfrey||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Mans, Keith||Rost, Peter|
|Maples, John||Rowe, Andrew|
|Marland, Paul||Ryder, Richard|
|Marlow, Tony||Sackville, Hon Tom|
|Marshall, Michael (Arundel)||Sainsbury, Hon Tim|
|Martin, David (Portsmouth S)||Sayeed, Jonathan|
|Mates, Michael||Scott, Nicholas|
|Maude, Hon Francis||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)|
|Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick||Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')|
|Miller, Hal||Shelton, William (Streatham)|
|Miscampbell, Norman||Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)|
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)||Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)|
|Mitchell, David (Hants NW)||Shersby, Michael|
|Moate, Roger||Sims, Roger|
|Morris, M (N'hampton S)||Skeet, Sir Trevor|
|Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)||Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)|
|Morrison, Hon P (Chester)||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|Soames, Hon Nicholas||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Speed, Keith||Waddington, Rt Hon David|
|Speller, Tony||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Spicer, Jim (Dorset W)||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)||Walden, George|
|Squire, Robin||Walker, Bill (T'side North)|
|Stanbrook, Ivor||Waller, Gary|
|Steen, Anthony||Walters, Dennis|
|Stern, Michael||Ward, John|
|Stevens, Lewis||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)||Warren, Kenneth|
|Stewart, Ian (Hertfordshire N)||Watts, John|
|Stradling Thomas, Sir John||Wells, Bowen|
|Sumberg, David||Wheeler, John|
|Summerson, Hugo||Whitney, Ray|
|Tapsell, Sir Peter||Widdecombe, Miss Ann|
|Taylor, Ian (Esher)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Taylor, John M (Solihull)||Wilkinson, John|
|Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)||Wilshire, David|
|Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Temple-Morris, Peter||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)||Wolfson, Mark|
|Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)||Wood, Timothy|
|Thorne, Neil||Woodcock, Mike|
|Thornton, Malcolm||Yeo, Tim|
|Thurnham, Peter||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Townend, John (Bridlington)||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Tredinnick, David||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Trippier, David||Mr. Tony Durant and|
|Trotter, Neville||Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd.|
|Twinn, Dr Ian|
That this House welcomes the decision of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to give his consent to the transfer of the ownership of the Today newspaper from Lonrho plc to News International plc; notes that Today was seriously loss making and manifestly uneconomic as a going concern; further notes that unless the transfer had taken place Today would probably have ceased publication immediately with the attendant loss of over 500 jobs; and congratulates the Secretary of State on ensuring the continuation of Today as a separate newspaper.