The Times made a serious mistake last week. It panicked in the face
of a big story involving its proprietor.
But the event has served a purpose, focusing attention on an urgent
professional issue. How do newspapers handle stories involving
themselves, their oweners and their associated business interests? The
answer is obvious: with great difficulty. So, is it not time for a
By failing to report - until Saturday - the furore over the Chris
Patten/Harper Collins story and Rupert Murdoch’s influence in turning
the book away from his publishing company - the Times has damaged
itself. (Raymond Snoddy, its distinguished media editor has fought a
spirited rearguard action this week to rescue his reputation.) Readers
must trust their newspaper to bring them a fair selection of the day’s
events, or they stop buying.
The odd thing is that the Times has recently managed to cope, quite
successfully, with more minor and routine conflicts of interest. Times
commentators can be rude about the quality of Sky Sports. And Ted
Turner’s blast, last November, against Murdoch was accurately
It is also true that whenever Murdoch is involved in some dastardly
deed, there is an overreaction. Patten’s book will achieve far better
sales - and newspaper serialisation offers - because of the row. In the
past few days apologists have rushed into the breach, to remind us that
every single national newspaper has its own agenda. It is also a fact
that they have huge problems reporting stories about themselves - while
relishing the problems of rivals.
Yes, proprietors do intervene in their own way. The Express, for
example, has adopted a Blairite political line since Lord Hollick, a
part-time adviser to the Government, took it over. It’s partly that
we’ve forgotten how much more blatant the use of papers to further
proprietorial interests used to be in the 1980s.
Robert Maxwell at Mirror Group Newspapers made himself a laughing stock
with devices such as a serialised hagiography. Tiny Rowland displayed
the unacceptable face of proprietorial power by ordering up the special
Thursday edition of the Observer (30 March 1989) to publish the leaked
DTI report into the Al Fayed takeover of Harrods.
There has to be a better way, especially in an era of renewed interest
in newspaper ethics. Every newspaper, even the Guardian, is part of a
multi-media group. The editor should lay down a line that it will treat
the reporting of its proprietor and/or company interests no differently
to anything else. He or she should also recognise that media writers are
in the front line, and have to be free to exercise their professional
skill and judgment. It’s not just war correspondents who need to be