When James Harding, the respected editor of The Times, resigned in December last year, he was widely regarded as a casualty of both the phone-hacking scandal in Rupert Murdoch’s empire and the parlous economic condition of upmarket newspaper titles in Britain. The paper famed as “the Thunderer” and once described by Abraham Lincoln as “more powerful than the Mississippi” has been losing millions of dollars every year for several decades. When Harding vigorously criticized the management of its parent company, News International, over phone hacking and police bribes, Murdoch’s alleged displeasure was reported by The Daily Telegraph, and the writing was on the wall for Harding.
It’s taken more than a month for Harding’s successor to be announced, and when it came on Friday, the confused announcement showed the tensions within the U.K. News Corp. publishing subsidiary. As expected, Mike Darcey, the new CEO of News International, appointed the longstanding Sunday Times editor John Witherow as acting editor of The Times, and promoted his former deputy, Martin Ivens, to acting editor of the Sunday Times. But these are only acting appointments.
In a rare show of defiance, the Independent Directors of The Times have refused to make the editorships permanent until they have had time to consider News Corp.’s longer-term plans for its London broadsheets.
Reports late last year suggested that Witherow’s appointment would lead to a streamlining of The Times and Sunday Times into a seven-day operation, and that News Corp. had made informal approaches to the ministry of culture, media and sport in order to change the terms of its agreement. This move to a seven-day operation was what effectively happened after Murdoch’s British Sunday tabloid, the News of the World, was shuttered after the phone-hacking scandal in 2011. It was replaced within months by a Sunday edition of his daily tabloid the Sun.
However, unlike the Sun and News of the World, News Corp is constrained by a legal agreement entered into with the British government when Murdoch acquired Times Newspaper Group in 1981. When Murdoch made his controversial bid, the merger gave him 40 percent of Britain’s newspaper readership. To escape referral to the monopoly authorities, Murdoch agreed to a tight set of legal guidelines: six independent directors are legally obliged “to preserve the separate identities of The Times and The Sunday Times,” and to approve by majority voting the dismissal or appointment of a new editor.
Sources close to News International admitted to The Daily Beast that management was looking to reorganize production of the two Times newspaper titles but “within the confines of the law.” The decision of the independent directors to defer confirming the permanent positions of Witherow and Ivens clearly came as something of a shock. The insider told The Daily Beast the “commercial imperative was paramount.“
“Newspapers needed to be produced,” the insider said, “and waiting for full confirmation would have left the newspapers without firm and strong leadership for several months.”
The executive decision to go ahead and announce the acting editors regardless seems to have called the bluff of the independent editors. There is apparently no legal limit to the length of these “acting editorships,” and the loophole seems to leave the much-vaunted agreement of 1981 in tatters. It also seems to confirm the statements of Fred Emery, a former assistant editor of The Times, who claimed that even 30 years ago Murdoch thought The Times agreement was “not worth the paper it was written on.”