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

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.