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.
Murdoch’s desire, of course, had been for the Sunday Times alone, but the bending required a package deal. Naturally, he did not want the package remaining unprofitable, and so he ordered a total reform of Times Newspapers management and production systems. A czar was appointed with sweeping powers—which wholly failed, compelling tactical withdrawal.
But the political alliance with the powers that be couldn’t be withdrawn, and was imperiled by Evans’s editorial firelighting. As at The Australian, the rush of news gave the editor a turnaround opportunity: in 1981, President Reagan and the Pope were shot; the space shuttle program threatened to disintegrate; and British society at times looked it would follow. Christiansen’s Rule applies specially when news is abundant, and an editor good enough to catch its flow may raise the dead. The Times began 1981 moribund, with a 15% annual sales loss that continued to accelerate. By summer this had turned into a rising trend, quite without promotion or price cuts.
But much of the news, clearly, was about effects of the Thatcher regime. Argument persists over whether the administration was stirring reform, vandalism, or a blend—but certainly Rupert and Margaret wanted their doings covered as triumphal progress. And that cannot happen if a paper is successfully capturing volatile reality.
Murdoch seemed to be in something like agony, especially when a Times reporter found that the Prime Minister’s husband had used Downing Street letterhead in seeking an official hurry-up for his private business. Evans’s position was that turning a serious newspaper around could not be done while putting political filters on its output. (This is a point we shall briefly revisit.)
And on such terms, Murdoch didn’t want it done. He removed certain of Evans’s colleagues, and then the editor himself—after claiming that the Times staff was demanding it. Evans cited the guarantees elaborated during the charm-show. “Not worth the paper they’re written on,” Murdoch told him, perfectly sensibly.
Evans couldn’t be fired for refusing to bias news in government’s favor; that would have been plain unlawful. So hazier offenses were cited: Evans had disorganized the office and demoralized the staff, and meanwhile editorials had become random, depriving The Times of a consistent line. The final claim was false to casual inspection, but had a fine theological ring. Altogether, they were trumped-up and easy to put-down in court—except for anyone under the time constraints of a daily newspaper editor.
Once ejected from The Times, Evans had leisure to write a book demolishing the Murdoch charges (Good Times, Bad Times, 1994): Professor Roy Greenslade (experienced editor turned respected media professor, City University of London) finds it convincing, and so do I. Those who don’t are mostly working for Murdoch.
Most Murdoch-watchers know Margaret Thatcher was crucial to his Times coup. Her contribution to his acquisition of the Fox network is by contrast, obscure.
This owes something to a heroic myth about Sir Rupert’s great Battle of Wapping in 1986, when he rode out against the British print unions to free the printed word from their grasp. This, his admirers claim, enabled the launch of a new competitor for The Times, The Independent, and so was victory not for News Corp. alone, but for newspapers altogether. We’ll come to editorial competition in a moment—but in the business sense the printed word was looking after itself in the matter of the Independent launch. Its production system was set up, in unionized plants, before News Corp. spectacularly dismissed all its own printers.
The Australian financial journalist Neil Chenoweth showed in his book, Virtual Murdoch, that Wapping essentially was about getting the Fox project past the FCC.
Fox assembly commenced in 1985, during the afterglow of Murdoch’s pro-Reagan press campaigns of 1980 and 1984. In those days he controlled the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Boston Herald, but it was work of Fleet Street aces imported for the New York Post that generated the most awe—as in Congressman Jack Kemp’s remark that the Post used “the editorial page and every other page necessary to elect Ronald Reagan president.” Quaint U.S. notions about objective news coverage were blown away.