Andrew Neil, the Mirror and a case of theft and bribery


Even assiduous media-watchers may have missed last week's newspaper trial of the year that wasn't: the Sunday Times and HarperCollins v Mirror Group Newspapers.

In the event, the dispute was settled on the steps of the High Court but in a manner that sheds light upon the big book serialisation deals that have become such a central part of newspapers' marketing wars.

The affair arose from events during the Conservative Party conference in October 1993, at the close of which the Sunday Times was due to publish extracts from Margaret Thatcher's memoirs. This plan was thrown into confusion when the Daily Mirror obtained an illicit copy of the book and published highlights six days before the Sunday Times was due to go to press.

The Sunday Times immediately sought a court injunction to prevent what Andrew Neil, then editor of the Sunday Times, characterised in his autobiography as "theft and bribery on a massive scale". But the court heard the Mirror's argument that there was a public interest in exposing the tensions between Thatcher and the prime minister, John Major, during, rather than after, an otherwise stage-managed conference and rejected the application. A day later, the Court of Appeal confirmed this judgement.

"The judges," Neil wrote, "had gone collectively bonkers", punishing Thatcher for her reform of the legal system in what was "an overtly political decision". By the time copies of that weekend's Sunday Times were in readers' hands, the Mail on Sunday had also served up a bootleg serialisation.

On the face of it, the Murdoch group companies had an unanswerable case. As Neil argued, unless the court's view was overturned, "nobody's intellectual property rights are safe from piracy". The Sunday Times, it turned out, had paid £525,000 for the serialisation rights, a figure very nearly doubled by the marketing spend also committed to the project. This was more than twice the sum that Neil paid for either of his two big royal serialisations - Andrew Morton's book about Princess Diana and Jonathan Dimbleby's on the Prince of Wales - and so probably the largest figure ever paid for a book serialisation in Britain.

The Sunday Times sorted out its differences with the Mail on Sunday in May 1994, when Associated Newspapers agreed to pay substantial damages and costs - over £600,000, according to Neil. But the Mirror resisted a claim that threatened to cost it as much as £2 million.

Here I must declare an interest. I became familiar with the case because I was asked by the Mirror Group to prepare an "expert opinion" on the issues. As a former editor and media academic, I was asked to take a view on the extent to which the Mirror's scoop damaged the Sunday Times and upon the "public interest" defence. My opinion would be set against that of Peter Cole, who had been retained by the Sunday Times. Cole worked with Neil at the Sunday Times for a period but is now, like me, a professor.

Cole's written opinion validated the Sunday Times's case that, in effect, a £1 million investment had been rendered worthless by the Mirror's actions. The Morton and Dimbleby serialisations increased the paper's sales by 21 per cent and 32 per cent respectively, whereas the Thatcher serialisation attracted only 109,000 extra purchasers, an uplift of 8.7 per cent.

However, according to Neil's own written testimony for the trial, he had expected the serialisation to increase sales by 150,000 on the first day and to contribute "perhaps 50,000 permanent readers". It is here that the plaintiff's argument seemed to me to encounter difficulty.

Whether or not the Thatcher memoirs were capable of generating excitement on the scale of Charles and Diana is debatable. What makes no sense is the argument that blockbuster serialisations, or indeed other major market- ing initiatives, add any sustained gains to a newspaper's sales.

The most obvious evidence is the circulation performance of the Sunday Times itself. When Neil became editor in 1983, its six-month average sale was 1.28 million. It was not until 1997, four years after Neil departed, that it broke through the 1.3 million mark. The point is not that Neil's editorship was unsuccessful - he survived the aftermath of Wapping and dealt with the Independent on Sunday, the Sunday Correspondent and Conrad Black's revitalisation of the Telegraph group - but it is surely fanciful to say that any given marketing campaign or serialisation can be relied upon to generate "permanent" new readers, the rewards of whose loyalty can therefore be assessed in cash terms. If that were true, given its volume of high-profile serialisations in the 1980s and 1990s, sales of the Sunday Times would now be comfortably in excess of two million.

The case of principle against the Mirror, that it violated copyright, was always difficult to counter, but the terms on which the case was settled suggest that the Sunday Times was not confident about the scale of its damages claim. In the end it settled for the measly £55,000 that the Mirror Group had already paid into court in an attempt to end litigation.

Will this outcome deflate prices in the book serialisation market? Don't count on it. In all the arguments between the Mirror and the Sunday Times, the hardest things to calculate were the parallel benefits to the paper's owner. HarperCollins, the sister company, still had a global best-seller on its hands, arguably boosted by the additional publicity, and Murdoch himself had, at worst, done a valuable political friend an expensive favour.

The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet