The death of the Sunday newspaper, slow sport and heroic alcohol intake

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Former Times editor James Harding
Former Times editor James Harding. Photograph: Getty Images

The departure of James Harding from the Times editorship is another step towards the demise of Sunday newspapers as we know them. That sounds nonsensical but it isn’t. As publishers struggle with the switch of readers and advertisers to the internet, the most obvious cost savings are to abandon the separate editorial structures of Sunday and daily papers and run a seven-day operation.

All national newspaper groups except Mail Newspapers have gone down that road. They have editors responsible for Sunday editions – just as they have editors for Saturday editions – but, at best, those editors control only a skeleton reporting staff and a few columnists. Sunday papers are Potemkin villages, designed to fool the public into believing that it gets something different on the Sabbath.

Rupert Murdoch wants the Times and Sunday Times to share more resources. At least one editor must lose power and status. Normally, that is the Sunday editor, which explains, for example, why Patience Wheatcroft left the Sunday Telegraph chair in 2007.

At Wapping, however, the Sunday Times is regarded as the stronger brand, with more than twice the Times’s circulation and, until recently, handsome profits. Harding, therefore, seems to have become the victim of what the business world calls a “reverse takeover”. It is reported that John Witherow, the Sunday Times editor, will become the new Times editor. My guess is that, at 60, he will become editor-in-chief of the two papers, with another editor, accountable to him, appointed for the Times. Murdoch is required, under an agreement made when he bought the titles, to keep the papers separate. He will find a way around that to get what he wants, as he always does.

In other words, the Sunday Times is, for now, on top – but its days as a distinct newspaper will eventually be over, submerged in a seven-day hybrid.

Witherow goest

Witherow, whom I first knew as a humble defence correspondent, is in his 17th year as editor, easily the longest continuous service in Murdoch’s UK empire. What is his secret? His paper contains many outstanding things but has none of the crusading zeal of Harold Evans’s Sunday Times or the ideological edginess of Andrew Neil’s. It expresses the conventional prejudices of the suburban golf club. Yet Witherow is a conscientious editor, who is said to read every word of the paper’s many sections before it goes to press. Moreover, he keeps a low public profile, always a plus with Murdoch, who probably doesn’t like his editors to become more famous than he is.

Under Harding, the Times became less predictable and more liberal than its Sunday stablemate. After a tentative start its coverage of News International’s travails over phone-hacking was admirably comprehensive and even-handed. Perhaps his independence was enough to put Harding into Murdoch’s bad books.

I suspect that his growing public profile – he was negotiating with Downing Street over the Leveson recommendations and was due to appear on BBC Question Time the day after his resignation – tipped the balance against him. Murdoch seems to think that editors should be in their offices, not on the telly, and certainly not telling prime ministers what to do, which is his job.

The need for speed

I don’t want to sound like one of those old folk who talk about how they walked ten miles barefoot to school after breakfasting on bread and dripping but I must tell those who complained about slow play during the India-England Test in Nagpur that the batting was positively reckless compared to when I was a lad.

The number of runs scored each day in Nagpur, on an exceptionally slow pitch, varied between 190 and 218. In Brisbane in 1958, England and Australia managed 142 on the first day and 106 on the fourth. In Nagpur, it took Virat Kohli just under six hours to make a century. That would probably have been a candidate for fastest century of the year in the 1950s. South Africa’s Jackie McGlew took nine hours over one century; England’s Peter Richardson took eight hours over another. In the 1958 Brisbane match, Trevor Bailey batted longer than Kohli (and received 130 more balls) just to reach 50.

Central heating, 24-hour television, batsmen hitting sixes in Test matches . . . the youth of today don’t know they’re born.

Liquid lunch

One outstanding thing in the latest Sunday Times is an article by Walter James, the former editor of the Times Educational Supplement who celebrated his 100th birthday this year. He writes: “For lunch, I have 90 millilitres of dry sherry, followed by a 300-millilitre bottle of Peroni beer. At dinner, my 90 millilitres of whisky or gin is followed by 250 millilitres of red wine. I imagine this exceeds by far the recommended rate of 21 units of alcohol a week.”

He can say that again. By my calculations, he is getting through a weekly ration of at least 69 units. If he can survive to 100 on such heroic tippling, there is hope for us all.

Merry Christmas.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005