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).

That Murdoch could seduce the Sunday Times people was sad, but not a total surprise. I had left the paper in 1976, thinking that professional fire might be be burning low. But under Evans it quickly began rekindling. Only for Murdoch to douse it, as he had done with Deamer’s Australian. To quote Yogi Berra: deja vu all over again.

Bruce Page is the author and co-author of several books, including The Murdoch Archiplelago, published by Simon & Schuster in Great Britain in 2003. He has worked for several newspapers, including the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times of London, where he led the paper’s investigative teams. He was editor of the magazine New Statesman between 1978 and 1982.