Media: Times are toughest when sales are falling

Following the settlement of the libel battle between Michael Ashcroft, the Tory Treasurer, and `The Times', some observers believe the paper's editor will be for the chop. Not so, says a former Murdoch editor - or at least, not unless he fails to stem the declining circulation

In the harsh, uncharitable world of Fleet Street there is no finer sight than a rival - or even a colleague - falling headlong from the top window of a high-rise building. So when news broke that Rupert Murdoch had personally stitched up a deal with Michael Ashcroft, the Tory treasurer, to withdraw his libel case against The Times, it was naturally assumed that the editor of the newspaper would be for the chop.

When it was revealed that the deal had been brokered by another newspaper editor whom Murdoch is known to admire, the rumour-mill concluded that he would be gone before Christmas. The gossip moved on to speculation about who would replace him. But reports of Peter Stothard's demise are much exaggerated.

Not for the first time, Fleet Street's demonology of Murdoch has clouded its judgement and led to the wrong conclusion. Murdoch is capable of many things in dealing with his editors, but he does not normally go behind their backs to undermine them. At least, he never did so in the 11 years that I was one of his editors.

Nor does he surrender to legal threats to save money. When I once agreed to a grovelling page-one apology to avoid having to withdraw an issue of The Sunday Times colour magazine that had already been printed, I thought he would welcome the fact that I had saved him a small fortune in advertising revenue. Instead he rounded on me for sacrificing the reputation of the newspaper for commercial considerations. It was my job to protect it, he hissed; he would look after the revenues.

Murdoch was worried that The Times would not be able to make its case against Ashcroft stick in court; implicit in its relentless, almost obsessive investigation into his affairs was the notion that the Tory Treasurer was a dodgy character with unsavoury (if unspecified) links to drug-dealing and money-laundering.

But the paper lacked hard evidence to back up its suspicions. Ashcroft's lawyers were advising him that his case was cast iron. The Times' legal team was beginning to worry that it was heading for an expensive and embarrassing mauling. Even then Murdoch did not intervene to insist on an out-of-court settlement. It was Ashcroft who blinked first.

The Tory leadership had already told him that it did not relish a bare- knuckle battle with Murdoch's flagship paper in the run-up to the next election. The prospect of living through a relentless media circus similar to that currently surrounding the Neil Hamilton/ Mohamed Al Fayed libel case depressed Ashcroft and made him less bullish. He decided to sue for peace, direct with Murdoch.

Ever the opportunist, Murdoch jumped at the chance of such a settlement. But he informed Stothard that he was in contact with Ashcroft the moment it was clear a deal could be done on acceptable terms, and made sure that his editor was fully involved in drafting the final peace settlement. Whatever initial fears Stothard had that deals were being done above his head were quickly dispelled.

Indeed, he had every reason to be grateful for Murdoch's intervention. There was too much bad blood between editor and Tory Treasurer for them to concoct peace between themselves. Murdoch had managed to agree a deal that required no apology or payment - just the clarification that The Times had not wished to imply certain nasty things about Ashcroft that it could not prove.

Honour was satisfied on both sides, though Stothard emerged the winner on points. Ashcroft had settled for much less than he believed a court would have given him, because he had reluctantly concluded that a libel trial would derail his political ambitions. But Stothard must also have breathed a sigh of relief; thanks to the intervention of his proprietor, he no longer risked being impaled on an expensive legal hook.

Amid the dark, unnecessarily unpleasant times of having Murdoch as your proprietor, there are also times when, as an editor, you think you have the best owner in the world. For Stothard, this must have been one of them. Now both proprietor and editor can concentrate on dealing with the real enemy at hand: The Daily Telegraph. That is not proving as easy to beat as seeing off Ashcroft.

Sales of The Times have been in gentle but steady decline for most of this year (bar the usual summer slump and autumn recovery) since price- cutting ceased to be the main circulation growth strategy: from 746,000 in January to 720,000 last month. The fall is hardly precipitous and sales of the Telegraph have also been nudging downwards, but not by as much. So the gap between the two papers, which Murdoch has spent much treasure attempting to bridge, has widened rather than narrowed.

Between June and November last year the Telegraph sold an average of 299,000 daily copies more than The Times. During the same months this year the gap has widened to 317,000. Not enough to settle the circulation war between them in the Telegraph's favour, but enough to make them wonder in Wapping what to do next.

Stothard's strategy of making waves and causing controversy (something The Sunday Times used to do) has made for some entertaining copy; but trying to destroy Ashcroft or stop Greg Dyke from becoming director general of the BBC has not sold papers. Moreover, Murdoch's appetite for controversy is less than it was and he tires of editors who cause too much of it, as I discovered when my fight with Malaysia over the Pergau dam proved to be one row too many. It has not escaped his notice that sales of The Sunday Times are at record levels without it.

The new Times arts and entertainment section has been an attractive addition, but printing constraints mean it has to be buried in the second section between business and sport; so something of huge interest to potential female readers is lost between male-dominated pages. It needs to be a separate section if it is to generate more sales. Murdoch's preference for printing "collect" (a method, popular in Australia, of printing two sections of equal pagination, which produces more colour sites for advertisers) forbids it.

Stothard's Times has many strengths. Its op-ed spread of editorials, columnists and letters is, in my view, the best in the business (though the new, third page of commentary has yet to find a purpose). Its news and feature pages are lively and entertaining. But they are increasingly driven by a middle-market agenda that puts off more serious readers.

And there's the rub. Sales of The Times have almost doubled since 1993, not solely thanks to price-cutting. The paper has also made a determined move into what might be called "Daily Mail territory". This has attracted many more middle-market readers; but it also deters converts among those who regard the Telegraph's pages as more substantial.

Stothard, of course, has the intellectual capacity to provide more rigorous news and features, which would compete better with the Telegraph. But to do so would risk losing all those middle-market readers who have been attracted by the price cuts and more accessible content of the newspaper. That is a circle that neither the editor nor the proprietor of The Times has yet worked out how to square.

Murdoch has spent too much money on increasing the circulation of The Times to be content to trail the Telegraph by 300,000 for ever. Stothard will be vulnerable if sales drift below 700,000, as they could on present trends some time next year. It is then that Murdoch is likely to decide that it is time for a new man (or woman) and new measures.

He will not move until he has determined what these new measures should be, which is why Stothard's job remains secure for now. When he does go, his editorship will be seen as a success; he has taken his paper from distant also-ran to the Telegraph to within shouting distance of it. But it looks as if it will take somebody else to go the final mile.

Murdoch will not be ruthless when the time comes. He rightly thinks highly of his editor, and will no doubt offer him another position in the Murdoch empire. This is as it should be for someone who has delivered. But, from my own experience, I do not advise Peter Stothard to be tantalised by any offers to anchor a show on Murdoch's US television network.

The writer is publisher of `Sunday Business' and `The Scotsman'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future