Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 319)


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 newspaper business?

  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 us—and we have not yet mastered the challenge—is 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 involved?

  Mr Thomson: I have never discussed reporting of BSkyB with my proprietor.

  Q303  Chairman: 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.

  Q304  Chairman: Would you have done the same for BSkyB if they had made the same mistake?

  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 incident story.

  Q306  Chairman: 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 ...

  Q307  Chairman: 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 of preference?

  Mr Thomson: We should not underestimate the role of readers of newspapers.

  Q310  Baroness Scott of Needham Market: Indeed.

  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 journalism.

  Q313  Chairman: 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 fact.

  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 the euro.

  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 about?

  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 were.

  Mr Thomson: The leader line in the Times is defined by me, the editor.

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