Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260
WEDNESDAY 18 JULY 2007
Mr Robert Thomson
To put it the other way, it would be unlikely that a euro enthusiast
would be appointed as editor of your newspaper.
Mr Thomson: That is a very hypothetical question.
I think that it depends on a range of characteristics. I do not
think that there would be one issue that solely defines the character
of the editor of the Times. If you are looking for a euro-sceptic,
I think you would find various people with far stronger views
than me on that subject.
It is often thought/alleged that Rupert Murdoch or a member of
the Murdoch family is constantly on the phone to you; is that
Mr Thomson: If they were constantly on the phone
to me, I would not be able to do my job. I have regular contact
with Rupert Murdoch. We have discussions about world affairs.
He is a very curious person. What we do not do is discuss what
is in the next day's paper in any way, shape or form. There is
a line there and he is very clear where that line is.
Is that because he knows what your views are? To put it in the
dreadful phraseology of politics, you are a safe pair of hands.
He knows exactly where you stand on these issues and he does not
really have to check.
Mr Thomson: I have seen it referred to as an
osmotic relationship. Actually, he does not know what my views
are and he does not know necessarily what is going to be in the
next day's paper. He certainly does not see the leaders before
they are published. That is a very different relationship to that
between, for example, the proprietor of the New York Times
and the editor of the New York Times where there is much
more communication about what is in the following day's paper
and about things in the paper. Those are the things that are simply
Q263 Lord King of Bridgwater:
When you spoke about the questions that were asked of you, did
you say that these questions were asked by the Times independent
Mr Thomson: Yes, that is right, they were the
questions raised by them.
Q264 Lord King of Bridgwater:
Is it right that you were a shortlist of one that Rupert Murdoch
put to the independent directors?
Mr Thomson: Yes, I was.
Q265 Lord King of Bridgwater:
Did he ask you those questions as well?
Mr Thomson: To be honest, I had not known him
for very long but he knew of my work as managing editor of the
Financial Times in the US. Thanks the great level of team
effort, I had been reasonably successful in building up the Financial
Times there along with the work of Richard Lambert. The nature
of the discussions that I had with him, before that, were entirely
informal. So, it would not have been possible for him to know
in great detail precisely what my views were on most subjects.
Q266 Lord King of Bridgwater:
Did he not want to know what your views were on various issues
as much as the Times independent directors would want to
Mr Thomson: We had met socially quite a few
times and I am sure that he had come to his own conclusions about
me as a person and as a journalist.
Q267 Lord King of Bridgwater:
Whilst he does not influence beforehand, does he read the Times
Mr Thomson: I presume that he looks at the Times
Q268 Lord King of Bridgwater:
I am sure you would know because you would hear, would you not?
Mr Thomson: I am trying to be as honest as possible.
He travels a lot; he spends much of his time in the US; there
is a lot going on in the News Corporation and whether he reads
the Times in minute detail every day ...
Q269 Lord King of Bridgwater:
But he keeps in touch?
Mr Thomson: We talk on a very regular basis.
Q270 Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:
I was not here when you made your very opening remarks and I hope
that you have not already answered this question. Are you aware
in your dealings with your proprietor of where the Times
sits in the whole range of media outlets of which he is the proprietor?
This directly relates to the question about whether he reads the
Times. He has an awful lot of other things to think about.
Where does the Times sit in his personal pantheon of importance?
Mr Thomson: I think that the Times is
the Times. He recognises its importance. During a period
of very great losses, he has supported the Times with investment
over many, many years. It is well known that the Times
if not for profit historically. I read in the Wall Street Journal
a couple of weeks ago that we lost £89 million three years
ago and, if it was in the Wall Street Journal, it must
be correct! We are now on the point, thanks to that support for
the Times and an understanding of the social and journalistic
importance of the Times where, next year, there is a very
reasonable chance that we will turn into sustained profit really
for the first time in our recent history. That of itself is a
recognition of the importance of the Times.
Q271 Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:
Sure but, in terms of content, what the Times says and
how the Times is viewed in the wider world of journalism
must be of some significance. Obviously, it is of great significance
to you as its editor. I was really trying to get at, how does
what the Times in London says reflect or lead the world
of the entirety of News Corporation?
Mr Thomson: The Times of London is a
self-standing entity; I have autonomy. Certainly the views of
the Times of London, my views and the effective work of
the Times journalists, does have a profound international
effect, but that is the life of the Times. It is not some
kind of complementary content to other things going on in the
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: That is
entirely what I was trying to get at.
Chairman: We will perhaps come back to
some of those issues in a moment let us go to more background
Q272 Baroness Thornton:
The Times readership has remained reasonably steady for
the last ten years; how do you think you can ensure this stability?
Mr Thomson: The readership in print is I think
about 1.7 million of late, so quite a dramatic increase if you
look back to, say, 30 years and, online, this month we are close
to 10 million or so. A different intensity of relationship, obviously.
The audience measurement needs to bear that in mind. To be honest,
I am often asked if the Times has been dumbed down.
Q273 Baroness Thornton:
That was my next question. I was going to ask whether you had
evidence that certain types of stories boost your circulation.
Mr Thomson: In fact, the Times has been
brained up. If you look at the balance of coverage through the
newspapers and the emphasis that we have put on foreign international
countries in particular where we have doubled the number of foreign
correspondents and another difficult issue, business coverage
where we have clearly invested a lot of money in recent years
in expanding that, these are not easy subjects but we have a social
responsibility to make sure that the world is covered well by
our newspaper. I think that the social role extends beyond Britain's
borders because US newspapers generally have been closing their
foreign bureaux. When I first went to Beijing in 1985 as the correspondent
sitting on the Herald and Financial Times, papers
like the Baltimore Sun and the Philadelphia Inquiry
and the Atlanta Journal all had their own staff correspondents
in Beijing. That just is not the case anymore. There is clearly
a lot of very serious content in the Times. Where British
newspapers are different and where we have to be savvy is that
our fate is decided on the newsstand, so naturally enough headlines
in British newspapers tend to be significantly larger than those
in, say, American newspaper where the vast majority of sales is
Q274 Baroness Thornton:
Perhaps you would like to share with us what your strategies are
for maintaining the position and boosting sales.
Mr Thomson: The most important part of our relationship
with the audience is trust. It is a word that editors can use
very easily, but I think that readers can tell from their own
reading experience whether or not that trust is reflected in sales
of the Times. If you look across the panoply of British
newspapers whether it is the Daily Mail, the Telegraph
or, at the other end, the Independent and the Guardian,
and ask quite generally which of the newspapers in Britain seems
to have the objective of being "objective above all",
the average reader would probably say the Times. That part
of our mission and really which defines our character as a journal
of record is the tradition. If you go back to the original founding
of the Times in 1785, that was very much what the founding
fathers had in mind and I feel that I am not only the editor but
a custodian of tradition.
Q275 Lord Inglewood:
If I may follow on from Lady Thornton's line of questioning, in
response to her, you said that headlines are important because
it is part of the selling of the newspaper but at the same time
earlier you talked about the social duty you had to make information
available. How do you balance these things? What are the criteria
that we use to make stories prominent or even to carry them at
Mr Thomson: There is a thing called news growth
and it is very difficult to get a journalist to define precisely
what that is because it is in an abstract sense a word: it is
intuition; it is a instinct. You do know that certain stories
such as health-related stories will sell better than, dare I say,
some political stories. So, on the front page because of the imperative
of the newsstand, you will weigh up the various stories, the neatness
of the story, whether the Times has a scoop which gives
it a second page in terms of assessing its news value. Some stories,
to be honest again, are on the front page and probably anybody
in the country could guess what would be on the front page given
the nature of a breaking news day but, for what you might call
more complex, more subtle, more nuance stories, obviously our
aim is to find a reasonably prominent place for political issues
and for social issues on a regular basis not in a tokenistic way
and particularly international news. and to supplement that with,
for example, things like public agenda, career and other parts
of the Times personality which enable us, without the pressure
of using the newsstand, to look at these very important issues
in a more textual way.
Q276 Lord Inglewood:
Do you have very clear lines of demarcation in your mind about
when news stops and comment starts?
Mr Thomson: I do and I hope that all of our
reporters do because there has to be the objective of being objective.
Q277 Lord Inglewood:
Do you sometimes find it hard to find space for some of the things
that you think are important which may not be very sexy which
is perhaps one way of putting it?
Mr Thomson: To be honest, every day, a certain
amount of content is left on the cutting room floor of the newspaper.
There are not enough pages in any given day. The beauty of the
web is that more and more of that content will have a life that
it otherwise would not have had. I regret it when those stories
do not make it into the paper but, even more than that, the journalists
who wrote them regret it even more.
Q278 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
Turning to advertising revenue, I wonder to what extent advertising
revenue compares versus sales and versus other forms of income.
Mr Thomson: I am able to be precise about that.
It is a very salient question because the picture for all newspapers
is changing quite dramatically. In 1997, 27% of our revenue came
from circulation. To be honest, we are all aware of the 10p Times
and the large amount of discounting we did to build an audience.
These days, we are pretty much the same price as other papers.
Our circulation has risen therefore from 27% to estimated to be
38% this year. Paper advertising and print advertising was 72%
in 1997 and is estimated to be 56% this year. Other revenue was
1% for both 1997 and this year, and digital revenue is 6% this
Q279 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
Thinking back to 10 years ago, what difference has there been
in the meantime and then, thinking 10 years ahead, what would
Mr Thomson: The most dramatic difference in
the preceding decade has been in the decline of classified advertising
which has fallen in the last three years by 15%. I would imagine
that that decline will increase and probably exponentially.