Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)


Mr Robert Thomson

  Q260  Chairman: 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.

  Q261  Chairman: It is often thought/alleged that Rupert Murdoch or a member of the Murdoch family is constantly on the phone to you; is that the case?

  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.

  Q262  Chairman: 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 not discussed.

  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 directors?

  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 know?

  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 every day?

  Mr Thomson: I presume that he looks at the Times most days.

  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 news.

  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 points.

  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 subscription sales.

  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 all?

  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 year.

  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 you predict?

  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.

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