That ended it, apart from the mechanics of isolating the editor from supportive colleagues and gathering-up disgruntled ones. Then it became clear what sort of paper Murdoch wanted: one which could turn into a propaganda machine for electing a Labor government in 1972—and three years later for removing it. Under Deamer it couldn’t have. Some things do run in families.
News Corp. as global phenomenon is the product of Murdoch’s wheeler-dealer trek, 1979-1997, through Reagan, Thatcher, and Blair territory, giving him Fox, the London Times group, and Sky satellite television. The key relationship was with Thatcher, and ironically the support she had from News Corp. contributed much to her regime’s demise.
Murdoch’s British papers ran clamorous campaigns for Thatcher in 1979, his U.S. ones for Reagan in 1980. It was lawful (if berserk) partisanship. The political affection that resulted was such that News Corp. was able to trash the laws of media competition in both Britain and the United States.
As people have noted—but rarely in proper detail—the Times Newspapers case is the one bearing most closely on the Wall Street Journal bid.
Times Newspapers was Fleet Street’s Lord (Roy) Thomson’s management company for two separately acquired assets: the highly prosperous Sunday Times, and The Times, a loss-producing daily, descendant of the Victorian “Thunderer.” By 1980, Ken Thomson, Roy’s heir, despaired of profitably combining these ill-matched products, and desired frantically to sell.
Murdoch desired the Sunday Times. And Mrs. Thatcher’s closest advisers (“my people,” as she called them) desired political dominion over British news media. Woodrow Wyatt, who had spent some time on the Murdoch payroll, was a principal among these “people.” (He didn’t reveal that in his political writings. Nor were Thatcher or Murdoch aware of the diaries he was keeping (The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt, three volumes, 1998-2000), now a vital source on News Corp. history.
Law blocked Murdoch’s desires for the Sunday Times. The purchase of an economically viable title by anyone already controlling newspapers (Murdoch, obviously) had to be investigated by the competition authorities. And proscribed, should the new owner’s record show disregard for “accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion.” Murdoch’s record manifested both. His bid was unlikely to survive statutory, independent scrutiny.
Thus it was necesssary, in Wyatt’s words, to have “all the rules bent for him.” And so they were. Murdoch and Thomson declared Times Newspapers insolvent—unviable—and pointed out that competition law doesn’t apply to valueless assets. Certainly The Times was then unprofitable (it still is, under Murdoch). But the Sunday Times was almost invincibly profitable—even at the apex of Thomson misfortunes. A fraud of worthlessness was created by treating Times Newspapers as a single publication, and pouring Times losses onto the Sunday Times. Wyatt knew well this was a deception, for the law referred to real newspapers, not to corporate veils swirling around them. But it was a deception that Thatcher accepted. As Murdoch knew, she liked his current politics, and in January1981 she secured Cabinet approval, in spite of some ministerial unease.
It was still a near thing, for the rule bending was gross, and a lawsuit was swiftly prepared by Sunday Times journalists to make the government obey the law. (It was modelled on an Australian action that had terminated similar Murdoch veil-dancing with television assets.)
Murdoch persuaded key Times executives and journalists to drop the suit by a charm-show very much like that now mounted for the Bancroft family, owners of The Wall Street Journal: journalism in the family bloodline; integrity, treasured; commercial help, need of; legal undertakings to leave editorial executives unharassed—these to be enforced by a board of incorruptible sages. Such presentations come with considerable self-deprecating charm—doubtless natural, for the earliest victims mention it. One of Camus’s characters defines charm as “a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.” This was not borne in mind enough at the Sunday Times, particularly by the editor, Harold Evans. He now says that endorsing Murdoch’s takeover—through which he became editor of The Times—was the greatest error of his professional life. As there was no greater editor during the twentieth century, and few equal, it was a drastic move indeed.
The Sunday Times that Evans left in 1981 was largely his own modern construction, on a platform newly laid by the first Lord Thomson. Among other things, he installed solid “Chinese walls” between editors and commercial management. Evans’s Sunday paper was nonpartisan, but its investigative firepower seriously enhanced media capacity to challenge illusions generated by state power (something that had been neglected by The Times since Victoria’s reign).