The press gang

The History of the Times: the Murdoch years

Graham Stewart <em>HarperCollins, 727pp, £30</em>

IS

In a few months, Rupert Murdoch will celebrate 25 years of owning the Times. It's hard to imagine many other people celebrating. Yet nor would many now argue that Murdoch - "that pornographer", as David Astor called him when he tried to buy the Observer - is the worst thing that could have happened. Since 1981, we have seen Conrad Black, Richard Desmond, Tiny Rowland and the faceless shareholders behind the Mirror Group take control of national newspapers, and all of them, in various ways, might seem less desirable owners than the Dirty Digger.

You can make a case that the Times is dumber than it was. It is hard to imagine any proprietor be-fore Murdoch encouraging the execrable new Times2 section. Nor would his pre-decessors have landed the paper with the fake Hitler diaries, the purchase of which Murdoch personally negotiated. Murdoch is also to blame for the excessive space and prominence now given to football - the direct result of his discovery in the mid-1990s that wall-to-wall football was the way to sell Sky's satellite dishes.

But the modern Times, though it chases the Mail readership, is nothing like the Daily Mail. It has ten pages of foreign news and more staff or contract foreign correspondents than at any time in its history. The specialist "briefings" on its news pages - by, for example, Peter Riddell on politics and Bronwen Maddox on foreign affairs - carry an authority far beyond anything in the Mail.

I never, in any case, quite understood the esteem in which the old Times was held. This, after all, was a paper that achieved the unique treble of backing the Confederates in the 1860s, appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s and (during a period when the communist fellow-traveller E H Carr was an assistant editor) accommodation with Stalin in the late 1940s. As Graham Stewart points out in this comprehensive history of the Murdoch years, many Times news stories in its supposedly golden era were copied from news agency reports or official press releases. It was an elite paper in the sense that its sales were below 300,000, despite all the City banks, public school libraries and so on that subscribed as a matter of course; it was not a particularly good paper.

On the other hand, the Times might be an even worse paper now if Murdoch had carried on as he did when he first took over. It was Harold Evans's misfortune that his editorship, which lasted barely a year, coincided with the period when Murdoch still wanted to play with his new toy. Later, the paper went absurdly overboard for Thatcherism, and Charles Wilson, Murdoch's third appointee as editor, so stripped the paper of intellectual authority that it was almost overtaken by the Independent and threatened to drop to fourth place in the broadsheet market. Murdoch, ever the pragmatist, recognised he had steered the Times in the wrong direction and stuck to that insight even when Simon Jenkins, Wilson's upmarket replacement, failed to turn the paper round. In any case, Murdoch was by then preoccupied with other interests, especially in America, thus vindicating the advice once given to me by his old Oxford tutor Asa Briggs, that the way to stop him interfering was to find him other things to buy.

With sufficient attention, you will get this story from reading Stewart. But this is an official history and, though the author can reasonably say nobody told him what to write, it is clear Murdoch's henchmen knew what they were getting when they commissioned him. Stewart makes a plausible fist of giving all sides of the dramatic episodes of the past 25 years, but on the important issues invariably sides with the management. This is particularly so with the 1986-87 Wapping dispute, a watershed in the history of British labour relations.

Stewart is probably right to paint the old Fleet Street print unions in an unsympathetic light. Freed from their overmanning, restrictive practices and high piece rates, newspapers could publish more, better-produced pages and get copies to readers reliably and punctually. Stewart's figures are telling. The last pre-Wapping Times, in which copy was still inputted by print union members, had 150 misprints in 32 pages. A typical post-Wapping issue had just 14 in 48 pages. The national newspaper printers, some of whom were racist, sexist, foul-mouthed and violent, were unpopular even within their own unions, whose members outside Fleet Street firmly refused them a scrap of support.

Yet Wapping was a defeat not just for them but also, when set alongside the outcome of the miners' strike of 1984-85, for the principle of collective bargaining. Peter Chernin, president of Murdoch's News Corp, knew what he was talking about when he called Wapping "the most significant labour event in the world during the past 40 years". Capital triumphed, labour was defeated, and the grossly unequal western societies we now have are a direct result. In newspapers, the forces of capital lapped up the spoils as greedily as the forces of organised labour had previously done. Newspapers, once "set free", were expected to produce shareholder dividends like any other business, and to introduce appropriate efficiencies, such as reducing the amount of time reporters spent "unproductively" away from computer screens. Stewart rightly points out that other newspapers benefited from Murdoch's defeat of the unions, because they, too, could reduce their workforces and introduce new technology, only without the odium of direct confrontation. But Murdoch was later to deploy his superior capital resources to try to put those same newspapers out of business - through marketing spend, cross-promotion and price-cutting.

That battle is still unfinished. It's hardly surprising that you won't get that side of the story from this book.