Media: The go-between who insists he isn't going anywhere himself

He emerged from the Ashcroft affair as Murdoch's blue-eyed boy, but Jeff Randall says he's not leaving `Sunday Business' yet.

JEFF RANDALL may be a favoured friend of Rupert Murdoch. But it is another larger-than-life figure - former soccer manager Brian Clough - who gave him his first break.

The Sunday Business editor recalls: "In the late Seventies I was at college in Nottingham and the Nottingham Evening Post was on strike. Brian Clough, the Nottingham Forest manager, refused to give an interview to `scab labour'. So I got him to do an interview with the university newspaper, which we then sold on the streets."

Randall has made a point of cultivating the big names ever since, and made use of his contacts. When Sunday Business's fortunes were at a low and Tesco refused to stock it, Randall phoned Terry Leahy, Tesco's chief executive, and got it on the shelves. But his most important contact came within News International. After becoming assistant city editor of The Sunday Times in 1988, he worked his way to managing editor of the paper's business news, which came with a seat at the News International monthly board meeting: "Where I got to watch the maestro, Rupert Murdoch," he says.

The two learned to trust, or at least make use of, each other. And Murdoch's use of Randall as go-between in the Ashcroft case shows that the two can certainly be considered close. Indeed, Randall is far too canny and far too experienced a journalist not to know that his involvement may have been psychologically destabilising for Stothard.

But yesterday, Randall seemed genuinely pained at the speculation of the last few days and the unfairness of it to Stothard. The Times editor, he maintains, could not have been an intermediary in a dispute in which he was one of the protagonists. "Other papers have revelled in this, but it was impossible for Peter to be involved. I don't know exactly what went on between him and Murdoch, but I do know that after the party on Thursday night at Rupert's house, Peter was in the loop."

And Randall reacts indignantly at any thought that he might leave Sunday Business: "I have bust my arse over the last two years. I don't want to walk out on it. I have a gentleman's agreement with the proprietors to be here until February 2001, three years after the launch."

Whether there have been conversations between Randall and Murdoch about a future editorship is anyone's guess. Murdoch has told associates he will not be making any changes before the next election. And February 2001 is not far from the next election. But Randall, unhappy with the way the publicity has rebounded on Stothard, won't contribute to any such speculation.

Alan Ruddock, the editor of The Scotsman, has worked with Randall, and like Randall is a Barclay brothers editor. He says: "I do not know anyone else who has gained as much trust from Murdoch as Jeff. He is clearly the key player in the Murdoch camp. Jeff has shown he has the qualities to edit The Times."

Randall has certainly turned around the fortunes of Sunday Business, which now has 62,000-plus sales, well on target for the break-even 80,000 target it has set itself.

Yet 45-year-old Randall promised himself he would give up journalism at the age of 40. He did indeed leave The Sunday Times for a City PR firm and a pounds 200,000-plus package. But he missed newspapers and six months later took a pay cut to return to The Sunday Times as assistant editor, and later sports editor, before being offered the editorship of Sunday Business, where he promised rather more "attitude" and a paper where "the FT meets Loaded".

Like all journalists, Randall is subject to paranoia, which he says is a constructive one. "I operate on the basis that I am going to be fired next week, and it is all going to go wrong at any minute."

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