A London read on Murdoch’s plan

Times Staff Writer

On the day after elections that handed the Labor Party a worrying midterm report card, Friday’s editions of the Times offered readers an unusually handsome, front-page portrait of Gordon Brown, the probable next leader of Labor, and an authoritative account of what transpired at the polls.

And for those who weren’t interested in the political future of Britain, a hot pink banner across the top of the page lured readers to an inside feature on homosexuality in the workplace: “How we came out at work.”

Editors past at the Times -- once the staid, reliable holy writ of institutional Britain, tucked under the arms of generations of powerful, polite men in bowler hats -- must have been spinning in their graves.


This, some would say, is the imprint of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Times in 1981 and turned it into a tabloid in 2004, the same physical format as his raucous, breast-heavy “Sun.”

Murdoch’s surprise $5-billion bid for Dow Jones & Co. has raised questions about whether the tycoon, a staunch conservative, could resist meddling in the news pages of the world’s pre-eminent financial newspaper, the Wall Street Journal.

Some editors who have worked in his newspaper empire doubt it.

Andrew Ferguson Neil edited the Sunday Times and worked on several of Murdoch’s television ventures but fell out with the tycoon when he wrote a book about his adventures. Neil recalled that Murdoch “loved the Journal’s editorial page. It was closer than any other paper to his views.”

“Neil added: “Whether he would be so tolerant as to allow the news pages of the Journal to go their way, independent of the editorial pages, which is the American broadsheet tradition, I wouldn’t be so sure.”

Murdoch’s takeover bid has led to comparisons with the Times and its sister paper, the Sunday Times, which along with the Australian have represented the empire’s quality papers.

Here in London, the Times and Sunday Times, even with Murdoch on the masthead, remain well-regarded in the upper echelon of the most competitive newspaper culture in the world.


In part, this is because London bears scant resemblance to the stuffy, white, English, Thatcherite city that lingered over the old Times’ endless gray columns with its morning tea.

These days, it’s hard to pick Murdoch reliably out of the crowd when the conservative Telegraph has video of “My life with R2D2” on the main news page of its website and the highbrow Guardian, which shrank to a mid-size format just a shade bigger than tabloid in 2005, flags on its web page a column (written by a former Times editor) on the legal fight over Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas’ wedding photos.

“Angry celebrities, come to Britain,” it suggests.

“You can say the Times has been dumbed down from what it was up to the ‘70s, but it is of a piece of a newspaper culture which is vastly competitive and is trying to steal sales from all over the market, including the middle markets,” said John Lloyd of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. “It can no longer function as a paper for the establishment, in part because the establishment no longer exists in a coherent form, as it used to.”

The Sunday Times remains the most successful of Britain’s quality Sunday newspapers, reaching 1.2 million readers and making enough money to subsidize the usually money-losing daily Times, whose circulation, at more than 639,000, is neck and neck with the Telegraph’s and well above those of the Guardian and Independent.

The two papers retain stables of respected foreign correspondents and often break news; they have been out in front from the beginning on the cash-for-peerages scandal that has beset the Labor government. The Times also fields one of the better business sections in London.

That is largely thanks to the current editor, Robert Thomson, a former editor for the Financial Times who joined the Times when he was passed over for the editorship of the FT. Thomson proceeded to hire away some of its best writers and beef up the Times’ business coverage.


Indeed, Murdoch’s interest in the Wall Street Journal may well reflect a desire to go head-to-head against the FT in the U.S., where that paper now sells more than 150,000 copies a day. The Times has published a U.S. edition since 2006, in part trolling for visitors to its website. Now, 3 million of the site’s 8.8 million visitors a month are American.

Murdoch and Thomson are pushing the paper east as well. Thomson said during a breakfast gathering in October that the Times expects its online readership in India to exceed that in Britain within “a couple years,” according to Britain’s Press Gazette.

Murdoch, many of his former editors suggested in interviews, is often misread as a compulsive purveyor of celebrity dish, right-wing zeal, or in recent years, enthusiastic support for the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Sun and News of the World closely reflect Murdoch’s own politics as well as his sense of what the masses want to read. The Sun sells 3 million papers a day.

But he has just as calculatedly pursued the upmarket reader, said Simon Jenkins, who edited the Times from 1990 to 1992.

“For the most part, his chief interest in newspapers is commercial. When he asked me to take over the Times, he did so because he thought it was severely threatened by the new Independent, which had just started up,” Jenkins said.

The Times may have been Britain’s oldest and most influential newspaper, but it was “very close to death” when Murdoch bought it, said Peter Stothard, who edited the paper from 1992 to 2002 and still edits the respected Times Literary Supplement.


The purchase terms provided that the Times newspapers would get hands-off management from Murdoch, a bargain most editors said he tried to stick to but never completely achieved.

“The truth is that passing from [former owner] Thomson to Murdoch was a transition from light to dark; and all of us involved were diminished by the shadows,” former editor Harold Evans wrote in his blistering account of the Times’ journey into the Murdoch empire, “Good Times, Bad Times.”

He recounted uncomfortable meetings in the mogul’s office. “Murdoch rattled off one-liners about the paper. ‘Tombola for the Times, that would do it,’ he said. ‘Up-market Bingo! And more sport! Forget women’s features. Kill the diary. Sport sells papers!’ ”

He ordered pages transferred from business news to sports. “What do you want this crap for, anyway? Two pages is plenty for business news,” he’d say.

Stothard said Murdoch’s mission was to modernize the paper.

“The Times was a good example of a lot of British institutions in those days, which were pretty complacent, self-important. They thought they were more important than they were.”

“Rupert is a very sharp observer of that kind of institution. He’s a very sharp spotter of the pompous, the second-rate, the person who thinks they’re an intellectual when they haven’t had a thought for years and are traipsing out the dull, conventional wisdom.”


The result was that the paper became “more populist,” featuring more soft news and celebrities, said Ian Burrell, media editor of the Independent.

Said Roy Greenslade, journalism professor at City University in London: “He does, I suppose, insist on things going in the newspaper, particularly promotions and prizewinning games and CDs, promotional gimmicks, which people feel cheapen it. But he understands that if he allowed these papers to become merely packages of trivia, people would simply desert them and go to the opposition.”

Former editors -- the company wouldn’t make any current ones available to talk -- say Murdoch wields his guiding hand at the Times papers from a distance these days. Subtly, occasionally, but wielded nonetheless.

“He would sometimes criticize a headline or a picture crop -- normally with good justification,” Stothard said. “But I can say I never e-mailed Rupert, I never telephoned him, ever. In 10 years as editor, I never wrote a letter to him, I never asked him about anything about news coverage, nor was I expected to.”