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25 June 2021updated 30 Aug 2021 11:28am

Rupert Murdoch’s bid to end editorial independence at the Times is a sign of decline

This move is less about power and influence and more about allowing News UK to cut costs in a tough print market. 

By Dominic Ponsford

Forty years after Rupert Murdoch bought the Times and the Sunday Times, the 90-year-old media magnate is seeking to end the legally-binding guarantees safeguarding their independence – which could pave the way for the merger of the two titles. 

It comes a decade after the phone-hacking scandal, when a chastened Murdoch appeared before MPs to apologise for the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone by the News of the World, on what he said was “the most humble day of my life”. Since Boris Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, Murdoch has appeared a good deal less humble as he and other News Corp executives have been frequent visitors to No 10 Downing Street.

Johnson has received generally favourable press from the Sun, even at times – such as the aftermath of Dominic Cummings’s appearances before MPs – when every other title has been seemingly against him. Today’s Sun front page, however, revealing Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s apparent extramarital affair with an aide, shows that the paper will publish damaging stories about the current government.

Murdoch’s bid to relax the independence of the Times and the Sunday Times is reminiscent of the favour he received from Margaret Thatcher in 1981, when she gave him permission to buy the titles following the Sun’s forthright support for the Tories in the 1979 general election. But it is also worth noting that the Murdoch of 2021 is a much less influential creature in the UK than he was in 1981. Back then, the Sun was selling nearly four million copies per day and the News of the World even more on a weekly basis.

The Times, on 300,000 copies per day, was a small but influential voice in national life. The Sunday Times was selling more than one million a week. These were the days when it felt as if a few big-circulation newspapers could, perhaps, influence election outcomes.

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Today, the Sun and its Sunday edition (which replaced the News of the World) are both thought to sell less than a million copies per day (they no longer publish circulation figures) and the Times and Sunday Times sell less than a million between them. Daily Mail and General Trust’s Mail and Metro titles stable comfortably outranks Murdoch’s on market share and, frankly, getting news from newspapers is a minority pursuit these days.

In the online sphere, the BBC is dominant, with Mail Online, the Guardian, the Daily Express, the Sun and the Mirror all in the chasing pack. News UK makes a reasonable point when it argues that, from an anti-monopoly perspective, the constraints on merging the Times titles are no longer relevant.

And are the Times titles truly editorially independent now? Though Murdoch leaves his Times editors to edit, they do not last long if their views diverge from his – as James Harding found out when he felt compelled to resign as editor of the Times in 2012 (in an apparent breach of the paper’s 1981 legal undertakings). Harding told a charity lunch in 2013 that when a “proprietor had a different view of things from the editor, I understand that the proprietor is not leaving”. 

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So while Murdoch watchers (and haters) will be alarmed by the latest bid to extend his power, they shouldn’t be. In the US his ownership of Fox News still gives him major political clout, but in the UK the Sun King’s empire is a fraction of what it was.

This move is less about power and influence and more about the prosaic business of allowing News UK to cut costs and achieve synergies between the Times titles, enabling them to survive in a fast-declining market for print newspapers.

[see also: Why a $2.7bn defamation lawsuit has Fox News running scared]