Published:

LABy Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC.

As the editor of The Times,
James Harding produced a lively, award-winning newspaper as well as enjoying
the admiration and support of his staff.

However, this
week he learnt that to survive in the post, every editor also needs the
confidence and backing of his, or her, proprietor – particularly when that
person is Rupert Murdoch, the world’s most powerful media mogul.

I discovered some months ago through senior sources that Mr Harding was
on borrowed time – for various reasons he had lost Mr Murdoch’s confidence to
an extent where the relationship could not be repaired. After that, there was
only going to be one outcome – Mr Harding’s departure. He resigned on
Wednesday.

These are difficult times for any newspaper editor, quite apart from the
repercussions of the Leveson report into the culture, practices and ethics of
the Press. Circulations are tumbling, advertising revenues are in decline and
no-one has yet discovered a model for how to make money from high-cost, online national
titles in the digital age.

Mr Harding’s position was made all the more difficult because, during
his five years at the helm, The Times’s
circulation declined faster than some of its rivals – by some 40 per cent, from
670,000 a day to just under 400,000. On top of this, losses at the paper are
now said to run at nearly £1 million a week.


Mr Murdoch, a very sprightly 81 years young, hasn’t got where he is
today by ignoring the “bottom line”, but there were other reasons, too, that
made Mr Harding’s job increasingly precarious.

Mr Harding took – some would say admirably, while others might say
foolishly – a robust, independent line when reporting on the hacking story at
the News of the World. 

However, as I reported in my blog of 9 February 2012, he then, embarrassingly,
appeared on the front page of his own newspaper after he was recalled to the
Leveson inquiry to explain when he had been forced to apologise to a High Court
judge, Mr Justice Eady, who had been misled by the paper’s lawyers in relation
to the hacking of a police officer’s email account.

Furthermore, I have little doubt that, under Mr Harding’s editorship, The Thunderer, as the paper was once
known, became a little too “off message” for its proprietor’s liking. Andrew Neil,
the broadcaster and Mr Murdoch’s editor of The
Sunday Times
for more than a decade, summarised this perfectly when he said
earlier this week
that the paper had become “way too liberal [and] wishy-washy
for Old Rupe.”

So what is the future for The
Times?
Mr Murdoch clearly wants to make savings by wholly, or partly,
integrating The Sunday Times and The Times into a seven-day operation.

The winner here is likely to be John Witherow, who could eventually
become the editor-in-chief of both
titles and with a more hands-on role at The
Times
, knocking it back into the sort of paper that his proprietor would be
prouder to own.

During Mr Witherow’s 18 years as editor of The Sunday Times, I have had my occasional ups and downs with him
and his paper. Regular readers of my blog will know, for example, that I did
not think
his Insight team handled the whole Peter Cruddas story with credit –
and may yet rue the day that its “exposé” forced him to resign as co-Treasurer of the
Conservative Party.

However, Mr Witherow is a talented editor and a safe pair of hands.
Crucially, I know that, unlike Mr Harding, he does retain Mr Murdoch’s full
confidence.

Yet, the future of The Times is
complicated by undertakings that were given by Mr Murdoch to the Government
more than 30 years ago. When John Biffen, then Trade Secretary, approved the
purchase of The Times and The Sunday Times in 1981, he insisted on
a legally-binding undertaking designed at protecting the independence and
quality of the newspapers.

Out of interest, last night I dug out a copy of that typed, five-page
agreement, which was drawn up to avoid the need to refer the purchase of the
newspapers by News International to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

One of the conditions of sale is that The Times and The Sunday
Times
remain as separate newspapers. Another is that editors are not
appointed or dismissed without the approval of the majority of the "independent
national directors".

Indeed, before announcing his (enforced) resignation to his staff on
Wednesday afternoon, Mr Harding met with the independent national directors to
inform them of his decision to step down.

It was reported yesterday – accurately, I suspect – that executives from
News International have made informal approaches to the Government to seek
permission to restructure the two titles into a single, seven-day operation.
News International clearly hopes to make significant savings – with inevitable
job losses – by merging the two newspapers.

The 1981 agreement was drawn up when well-run national newspapers were
big, profitable beasts with huge reporting staff worldwide. Now, even as much
leaner operations, they are fighting for their very survival.

Governments, like big business and other walks of life, need to move
with the times. I see no reason why this shouldn’t involve a re-think of an
out-dated agreement sooner rather than later in order to secure the future of The Times for many years to come.

* Lord
Ashcroft’s book
Dirty
Politics, Dirty Times – about his battle with
The Times and the
Government  – can be downloaded from his
website: www.lordashcroft.com

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