Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300
WEDNESDAY 18 JULY 2007
Mr Robert Thomson
Q300 Lord Inglewood:
You told us that you hope, all going well, that the Times
will burst into profitability. Without asking your for any commercial
secrets, is that because you have basically been ahead of the
game on the way in which you have been exploiting things digitally
rather than being more efficient in the old-fashioned, traditional
Mr Thomson: I would like to think both in the
sense that we have put the price up but kept the audience at a
very high level in print. We have generated a lot more business
advertising and, if you have strong business content, companies
will tend to come, so there is certainly that element of it. What
you can do with high quality distinctive content is re-purpose
it. So, the story that is printed about, say, the Indian economy
will be read online. We have a Dubai edition which generates a
separate revenue stream. We then are able to use that story in
Japan in the Yomiuri Shimbun, which is the world's largest
newspaper; it sells a mere 10 million copies every morning, something
to which all editors should aspire. Each Sunday, it prints seven
pages of the Times and so we are able to re-purpose it
in that respect. In the last five years, apart from the digital
audience, we have been able to do of the order of 32 new syndication
deals for Times content in about 22 countries, and one
thing that we have been able to do is understand that there is
a new hierarchy of content and understand that different elements
of content have different meanings to different audiences and
the challenge for usand we have not yet mastered the challengeis
given that you are now reaching different audiences, to put it
crudely, have you moneytised or commercialised those audiences
so that you can feed that investment back into journalism?
Q301 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
I want to return to a couple of rather different points that emerged
from your conversation with the Bishop of Manchester. One of the
relationship you have with BSkyB. I noticed that the Times
gave quite a lot of prominence to the BBC's recent embarrassment
over the Queen. Are any of your media specialists looking to the
practices of Sky programmes?
Mr Thomson: We have a media reporter who, by
any reckoning by any journalist of any newspaper, is a serious,
is responsible media reporter. My advice to him on media stories
is to report them straight and I trust Dan totally.
Q302 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
And that is not something with which you proprietor would become
Mr Thomson: I have never discussed reporting
of BSkyB with my proprietor.
Just to follow that up, I have the paper which I think Lady Bonham-Carter
is referring to and your front page on last Friday contains six
photographs of the BBC and their ill-fated documentary.
Mr Thomson: That is what it was.
Would you have done the same for BSkyB if they had made the same
Mr Thomson: We certainly would have highlighted
it. The combination of the BBC and the Queen does make it more
than unusually historical.
Q305 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
Just as with Rupert Murdoch and the Queen, I expect.
Mr Thomson: That would be a more than unusual
You mentioned your correspondent and I agree with you, but I notice
that when the BSky purchase that was put to the Competition Commission,
I think there was an article which had the headline "Analysis"
which said that Alistair Darling had taken the easy option in
referring you to the Competition Commission and ended with the
words, "The good news is that the Commission had started
with a blank sheet and Sky has been here before facing defeat
and turning the situation around". I am not quite sure that
I view that as perhaps the most objective way of putting the point.
Mr Thomson: To be honest, I do not think it
is fair to pick on one article. If you wanted a serious content
analysis, you would have to look at the range of articles published
on these subjects over a long period and to see if any distinct
themes emerge, to see if there are any obvious infelicities, to
see if there is an infelicity whether it is an exceptional infelicity
or whether it is something that is part of a pattern and I do
not think it is fair to the reporter or to the Times ...
What you are saying is that it is not part of a pattern.
Mr Thomson: It is certainly not part of a pattern.
Q308 Lord King of Bridgwater:
Do you think it is important to protect the Times? The
Times, as we know, is a great international newspaper.
Everybody knows Mr Murdoch owns it and many other media interests
as well. Do you consciously strive to ensure that you do not actually
give any favouritism and advantage to any of the many activities
that he is involved in to the detriment of other competitors?
Mr Thomson: We do and clearly it is an issue
of sensitivity and it is up to me to make clear to the reporters
that what I expect from them is good reporting. I am sure there
are people at Twentieth Century Fox who think we are very harsh
on how we review their films but our film reviewers review films
objectively at least by their standards, not by the standards
of seeking to do corporate favours. Again, all I would ask is
that you do a serious content analysis, that you look at the purpose
of the reporter, you compare that coverage to the coverage of
other newspapers and reach a studied conclusion.
Lord King of Bridgwater: I think that
is a very good idea.
Q309 Baroness Scott of Needham Market:
I would like to ask a further question on what you just said.
Who ensures that you continue to take that view? Is it entirely
for readers to decide whether or not you are showing some sort
Mr Thomson: We should not underestimate the
role of readers of newspapers.
Q310 Baroness Scott of Needham Market:
Mr Thomson: Readers of particularly papers like
the Times tend to be well educated and thoughtful people.
If there is an obvious bias in the Times, then clearly
they have reading options far beyond those of a few years ago.
Secondly, we have a feedback editor who writes a column each Saturday
in the Times and is responding to readers' queries about
why the Times did a certain thing or whether there was
an issue that was covered properly right down to the matters of
style. Thirdly, if we get something wrong, we have a deputy managing
editor who goes through the managing editor's office whose job
it is to make sure that every single query and every single complaint
is dealt with or is at least is beginning to be dealt with on
the day of the complaint, is dealt with rapidly and fairly and
that corrections and amplifications appear in a place where it
is relevant to the article that the complaint is about, that it
is an error that is clarified there and that you do not have a
small collection of errors on one particular place which frankly
tends to trivialise the larger errors.
Q311 Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:
May I go one step further in relation to what you have just been
describing. The people who have responsibility, the readers' editor
and the managing editor that you speak of, are they responsible
to you? Do you have the ultimate say in how they mediate all of
that stuff? I will tell you why I am asking you. We heard from
the editor of the Guardian that his readers' editor is
independent of him in the sense that, as he put it, he cannot
sack her. Do you operate in a similar way in respect of the people
who are acting as your arbitrators with your readership?
Mr Thomson: We do not have a `can't sack you'
clause which, depending on the person, is or is not significant
because there is can be an osmotic process of influence. That
is the accusation often made about the Times. What is important
is that there is clearly fair and objective response to readers'
concerns and complaints and, secondly, that when we are dealing
with sensitive issues, we try to be fair about it. Ultimately,
the editor is responsible. There is no one else who is responsible
and there is a hierarchy and, if there are errors in judgement
in the Times, they are my responsibility in the end. Whether
or not you have supposed breakers in the hierarchy, I think ultimately
to presume that anyone other than the editor is responsible for
a newspaper is looking in the wrong direction.
Q312 Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:
I certainly do not with to suggest that there should be somebody
else who is responsible but simply that, where there are issues
of accuracy or fairness or indeed where a journalist may be seeking
to promote a particular line or to follow a particular story where
the interests of the editor, the interests of the journalist and
the interests of the reader may at moments not necessarily all
be exactly the same, the question of who then arbitrates becomes
rather more critical than if it is simply a matter of whether
you have spelt someone's name incorrectly.
Mr Thomson: The ultimate arbiters of fairness
for every newspaper are the readers. If readers collectively presume
that the Times is an unfair newspaper, then the Times
has no future. So, clearly it is in my interests for that fairness
to be absolutely a central and essential part of our culture and
it is the signals that you send to your reporters about how stories
should be covered, whether it is global warming or whether it
is Iraq. With difficult complex issues, the guidance to every
single reporter is, if you deal with the facts, from the facts
themes should emerge. It is not, as is characteristic of a lot
of contemporary journalism, that you find the theme and then you
selectively gather the facts to fit the theme. The Times
still advised by a great principle of traditional journalism not
by what I would argue is the more corrupt form of contemporary
Not writing a headline and then making the facts fit in with it.
Mr Thomson: Exactly.
Q314 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
That phrase brings me to the end of the second point I wanted
to make which is a more general point and that is, how concerned
are you about the dissemination of unedited news across the web
through the aforementioned blogs and so on and how do we deal
with the fact that a number of people are getting information
that has no editor involved in it at all?
Mr Thomson: I think that is a serious question
for the Committee and for our society because newspapers make
mistakes but most serious newspapers are all about trying to find
out the facts and present them to readers. For some Internet content,
facts are incidental if not accidental and the problem that we
have as a society is that there is a significant number of people
who have grown up in a different information environment, they
have not developed the critical faculties that we all had the
privilege of which was sitting with newspapers around the breakfast
table with your parents or at university where you are able almost
to argue over the value and veracity of different pieces and what
the angle on a particular story is. So, instead of developing
that critical faculty in a socialised sense, what you have is
a lot of young people who are growing up surrounded by much more
information but whose provenance is not clear. We should not presume
that they are foolish but what they do not have is the value of
that traditional tutoring in assessing the balance, the origins
and the meaning of that information which obviously leaves one
to fear that, in the longer term, the critical judgment will not
be as it should be, the rumours will be believed, the fiction
will be thought of as fact and, with the political agendas, among
other agendas, will be influenced by interest groups who are coming
from some quite strange trajectory to issues based on collecting
understanding that is founded on falsity.
Q315 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
What at this stage do you think is the path we should be heading
down? What solution is there to this?
Mr Thomson: As a society, we need to talk about
this issue a lot more and schools in particular have a role in
making young people question the origin of information and the
medium of the information and we should all be passionate about
Q316 Lord Corbett of Castle Vale:
Opinions change both among journalists and, more importantly,
amongst readers. Let us assume that, in 12 months' time, the Prime
Minster announces that all the tests that he put on our membership
of the euro have been met and it would now be in the United Kingdom's
interests to join the euro. The Times would have to make
up its mind whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. The way
things stand at the moment, it would probably err on the side
of, we are not totally convinced and all the rest of it. Let us
assume that you come to the conclusion that you are persuaded
by what the Prime Minister and others say about this making sense,
so that you are minded now to run a leader in the Times
welcoming this development. Are you totally free to do that?
Mr Thomson: I am totally free to do that but
I find it difficult to imagine that I would be minded to support
Q317 Lord Corbett of Castle Vale:
What I am trying to get at is, if you wanted to do something which,
let us say, Rupert Murdoch would not have thought you were going
to go there, persuaded by changes in what is going in the world,
is this something that you would feel the need to talk to him
Mr Thomson: No.
Q318 Lord Corbett of Castle Vale:
So, he would open the paper and have one big bloody surprise!
Is that what you are saying?
Mr Thomson: I hope so. There is a real contest
of ideas at the Times. If you look at the leader columns
and look at Peter Brust's cartoons, and Mathew Parris is not David
Aaronovitch, so there are many ideas in the Times
Q319 Lord Corbett of Castle Vale:
Forgive me, I am talking about an editorial stance which you know
is contrary to where the proprietor's views are but you become
persuaded that times have changed and that he ought to, as it
Mr Thomson: The leader line in the Times
is defined by me, the editor.