Media: The Neil Report - The Times: cheap and fearful

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The Independent Culture
Writing this column is becoming something of an occupational hazard. After I penned a few mild criticisms of The Guardian a few months back, I was told by someone in the know that Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian's editor, would now be "an enemy for life". It strikes me as a bit of an over-reaction to a balanced piece (the editor should see what his paper writes about me!), but it's a cross I'll just have to bear (some will regard it as a badge of honour). The article must have hit more raw nerves than I realised.

It certainly explains the black smoke billowing in my direction from Farringdon Road ever since the piece appeared. Guardian apologists have been dispatched to all corners of the media village to correct any supposedly false impressions I have spread. The London Evening Standard even devoted a page to an article which attacked me as much as it defended The Guardian.

Since it was penned by Henry Porter, whom nobody takes to be an homme serieux in media matters, I think my reputation will survive. But I've stopped waiting by the phone to be commissioned to write the occasional piece for The Guardian Media section or its Observer sister.

Then there was the fallout from my observations on the folly of scrapping News at Ten and the lack of serious, prime-time current affairs on ITV. That led a fuming Roger Liddiment, ITV's programme controller, to issue a verbal fatwa against me. After last autumn's highly-successful run of Carlton's Thursday Night Live, which I co-presented, it was scheduled for a network slot - but not with me. Mr Liddiment left no doubt that I was not welcome on the ITV network.

Clearly our great media panjandrums are not as relaxed about taking criticism as they are at dishing it out. So it is with a certain trepidation that I turn this morning to The Times. On the other hand, I am already persona non grata with Rupert Murdoch and no responsible media commentator can ignore the fact that, in one crucial respect, The Times is in trouble.

The latest circulation figures do not make happy reading for Peter Stothard, the editor, or his proprietor. Sales for the second half of last year were down over 5 per cent on the second half of 1997. The decline seems to be gathering some momentum: average sales in December were 723,000, almost 8 per cent down on December 1997, the biggest fall in a declining market. The consolation is that sales of the Daily Telegraph are also down - but not by as much (down 4 per cent on six-monthly and monthly comparisons).

You do not need a PhD in mathematics to work out that, if The Times is declining at a faster rate than The Telegraph, then it is not going to achieve Murdoch's burning ambition, of almost two decades standing, to overtake its main rival. The figures show the limitations of The Times' price-cutting strategy.

There is no doubt that, in absolute terms, it has been a success. Before price-cutting, sales were around 350,000 and morale was low, as Murdoch regularly jerked the paper up- and down-market in an elusive search to put on sales and challenge the Telegraph. Almost in desperation, Murdoch resorted to a substantial price cut. It worked.

Sales soared, and in the autumn of 1997 briefly passed the 800,000 mark, which at last put Murdoch in striking distance of The Telegraph's one million-plus. But it soon became apparent how much buoyant sales depended on a low cover price. Just as a junkie must have his fix, so The Times has become hooked on price-cutting to maintain sales growth. Every time the price was increased, sales began to stutter and fall back, only to be expensively boosted again by yet a further cut-price injection.

The Times has eschewed (at least for now) its original 20p cut price and its 10p Monday giveaway, and settled for a regular 30p every weekday: that explains its current decline. Its price is still a substantial 15p below the Telegraph, but even that is not enough to narrow the sales gap with the market leader, which has now settled into a pretty solid 300,000 lead over The Times.

The fundamental problem for The Times is that price-cutting has not produced the natural momentum in sales that Murdoch had expected. He hoped that a combination of low price, and revamping the paper to appeal more to the middle market, would produce an upward trend in sales that would be maintained - even when the cover price returned to realistic levels. The Times would gradually eat away at the Telegraph's lead. It hasn't happened. The gap with the Telegraph has been impressively narrowed. But the most expensive cut price campaign in broadsheet history has left a final 300,000 sales gulf to be bridged - a gulf which seems impervious to further price cuts, and which grows every time the price of The Times is increased. Nobody is quite sure what to do next.

Improving the paper would be one long-term strategy worth considering. The Times has become much brighter under Stothard, but in widening its appeal he has been unable to avoid dumbing it down - a perhaps unavoidable problem in the Murdoch empire.

Stothard is an aloof, academic-minded editor, who would probably have been happier at The Times of 30 years ago. But, under pressure from his proprietor, he has pushed the paper towards a populist approach with which he is not always comfortable.

In many ways The Times has become a middle-market tabloid in a broadsheet format. The news and features agenda of today's Times is little different to the Daily Mail's; in some respects that is being unkind to the Mail, which carries more serious political coverage (where The Times is weak) and better features.

Populism that is acquired rather than natural can lead to crassness. A recent Times page three was devoted to an insignificant squabble between two BBC daytime talk show hosts, Robert Kilroy-Silk and Vanessa Feltz. It was worth no more than a diary item or, at most, a short piece in the media section. But The Times gave it over 1,000 words, plus huge pictures of the warring parties on its most prominent inside news page. I doubt if most Times readers watch the shows in question: if they do, Times advertisers should ask for their money back.

The news and features pages of the Telegraph remain superior in most respects: more comprehensive, more authoritative, more serious, more sensible in their choice of page one stories. I suspect that is why it still enjoys a 300,000-plus lead. Both papers cover sport expansively, enjoy adequate business coverage, and boast formidable Saturday packages, including (not common these days) colour magazines in which there is always something worth reading.

Neither paper has much of a reputation for breaking stories or mounting major investigations. But the Telegraph still has an edge on those news and feature pages which most define a newspaper. Murdoch, who has always admired The Telegraph's strength in news, knows it.

Where The Times excels is in its editorial spread of leaders, letters and columns. These two pages are Stothard's baby. He presides over intelligent, unhysterical editorials, the most impressive collection of centre and centre-right columnists in Fleet Street, and (once again) the most influential letters page.

The high-minded guiding spirit of this spread is so at odds with the populist, sometimes even vulgar, spirit elsewhere in the paper, that it feels like a rather superior Oxford college forever having to fend off the barbarians at the gate.

I am told, however, that the opinion spread is safe: Murdoch feels that as long as it is kept pristine, he can do what he likes with the rest of the paper. That will reassure traditional Times readers - and cause them to shudder.

Though he has not reached his master's goal, Stothard's editorship should be regarded as a success, if not quite to the extent he thinks. As sales shot past 500,000, he used to go around the cocktail party circuit implying that it was all due to his genius as an editor. In fact, it owes more to the massive treasure he has had at his disposal to cut the price and develop the product - and the fact that, much to its journalists' chagrin, the Sunday Times is a convenient, fat milch cow with which to finance its poorer sister.

But Stothard has presided over a time of upheaval for his paper with considerable skill. Whether he can ever bridge the remaining gap with the Telegraph looks increasingly doubtful. Murdoch's eyes are elsewhere at the moment, and he does not need to hurry: the extra readers have at last produced a substantial increase in advertising revenue, so that (as far as such things can be divined from within the murky depths of Wapping accounting) it looks as if The Times is breaking even, or making a small profit.

But, Murdoch being Murdoch, there will come a time when he will want to make that final push against The Telegraph. Future dominance in the broadsheet market belongs to whoever can combine the commentary of The Times with the news of the Daily Telegraph.

Stothard has undoubtedly done his formidable bit but failed, so far, to finish the job. When Murdoch eventually decides to go for that final push, I suspect he will find another general to lead it.

Andrew Neil is the editor-in-chief of `Sunday Business' and `The Scotsman'