Changing 'Times': the challenges facing new editor James Harding

Like King Lear, the ageing Rupert Murdoch has split his kingdom into two. The difference is that he has taken the precaution of hanging on to the more important part. He keeps America as well as Australia, where it all started. His younger son James gets Europe and Asia. He will take over from his father as non-executive chairman of BSkyB, and gains control of Sky Italia and the Star TV network in Asia. The British newspapers The Sun, News of the World, The Times and The Sunday Times will also come under his thrall. And he's only 34!

The appointment suggests that the 76-year-old Mr Murdoch is thinking about his succession. James is deemed to have been a very competent chief executive of BSkyB. If he does equally well as overlord of the European and Eastern empire, shareholders in the multi-national media company News Corp, in which the Murdoch family actually has only a minority stake, will probably accept him as the next Sun King.

However, unlike his father, James is no newspaperman, and he has a great deal to learn about newspapers. Nor should we assume that Rupert will let him single-handedly determine the political line of the mass circulation Sun. But James will certainly have a say. He is believed to see the point of David Cameron more than his father has done, so the Tories will be pleased.

These are momentous developments in the media world. Yet my particular interest call me a romantic if you like is in one little, loss-making part of this vast empire. I am speaking of The Times, once the greatest and most famous newspaper in the world, and, according to Abraham Lincoln, more powerful than the Mississippi. As part of the changes announced three days ago, it acquired a new editor, James Harding, who has been its business editor for 18 months. His appointment was rubber-stamped by the five "independent" members of The Times board.

As was long predicted in this column and elsewhere, Robert Thomson is leaving the editorial chair to become publisher of The Wall Street Journal, whose acquisition by News Corp will be completed this week. Les Hinton, who has run Mr Murdoch's operations in Britain for 12 years, is going to New York to be chief executive of Dow Jones, under whose immediate umbrella The Wall Street Journal comes.

Let us not be deceived by the shake-up and James Murdoch's promotion. America remains the centre of the Empire. Doesn't Mr Thomson swapping the editorship of The Times for the job of publisher of The Wall Street Journal tell us everything? The Times has become a relative backwater in News Corp, and Mr Thomson is being called back from a not insignificant but outlying province. Rupert Murdoch is preoccupied with The Wall Street Journal, whose already considerable profits he is determined to increase.

And what of Mr Harding, who becomes the 21st editor of The Times? At 38 he is the youngest ever person to edit the paper, and its first Jewish editor. He is also Mr Thomson's protg. I am told that Mr Murdoch, distracted as he is by the WSJ, has taken less interest in the appointment of a new editor at The Times than on previous occasions. Mr Thomson can be said largely to have arranged the succession. Other internal candidates were interviewed, among them Ben Preston, deputy editor of The Times, and Martin Ivens, deputy editor of The Sunday Times. There were a couple of external candidates as well, but Mr Harding was always the frontrunner.

He is evidently brainy, and focused on his career. After taking a First in history at Trinity College, Cambridge, he learnt Japanese, and went to work as a speech writer in the office of Kiochi Kato, then Japan's chief cabinet secretary. From 1993 until 1994 he was employed in the Japan unit of the European Commission.

Having joined The Financial Times in 1994 as a reporter, between 1996 and 1999 he was the paper's correspondent in China, where he opened a bureau in Shanghai. He learnt Chinese to add to his Japanese (and French and German). From 1999 until 2002 he was the FT's media editor, and was then appointed its Washington bureau chief. Eighteen months ago his old friend and former colleague (and fellow Chinese speaker) Robert Thomson lured him to The Times as business editor. Most people think he has performed very capably there.

It was during his three-year stint as media editor that he came to the notice of Rupert and James Murdoch. Inevitably, he wrote many stories about News Corp. On one occasion, in June 2002, he conducted a three-hour interview over lunch with Rupert during which the tycoon revealed that he believed in God (and was now attending Catholic services with his Chinese-born wife, Wendi) and complained that the Episcopalian Church in America was becoming too theologically liberal. This from the father of Page Three girls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of this aroused Mr Harding's sense of irony.

But he certainly got Mr Murdoch to talk, and plainly admires him. He also met James, and the two men became friendly. If you want to become an editor these days, you have to chew the cud with the boss. Mr Thomson did the same. Cultivating two prospective bosses is even better. Nor will being a Chinese speaker (Rupert is obsessed with China) and business-savvy have done Mr Harding's prospects any harm. Publishers are increasingly appointing business editors as editors (Will Lewis at The Daily Telegraph being another example) in the hope that their financial acumen will prove useful in the editorial chair. As it happens, with one or two exceptions, City editors have not made particularly successful editors.

Will Mr Harding be any good? He certainly looks strong on paper. So far as The Times is concerned, it will be more of the same. He is not going to turn the clock back, reverse the dumbing down of the paper and take it upmarket. The Times will not become our equivalent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine or Le Monde. It will continue to be an often infuriating amalgam of the high and the low.

Mr Harding knows his boss. In the interview I mentioned, he asked Rupert Murdoch what he thought would be his lasting contribution as a patron of the popular arts. "Saving The Times and making it a better paper than it has ever been," replied the tycoon, which was an interesting response.

The Times may be regarded by Mr Murdoch as an outlying province of his vast empire as he busies himself with The Wall Street Journal, but it has mattered to him in the past more than most people think. It was the Establishment's paper, and he has refashioned it in his own image. He has never made it profitable in the quarter century since he acquired it in fact it has lost tens of millions of pounds but that has been a relatively small price to pay for the privilege of owning, and transforming, a symbol of the England he loathed.


John Walter (1785-1803)

Originally a coal merchant and a failed underwriter, John Walter founded The Times when he purchased the patent for a new form of printing. He started off printing books and then a newspaper called The Daily Universal Register. After 940 editions, on 1 January 1788, he changed the paper's name to The Times. Initially the paper was a daily advertising sheet, but Walter negotiated a deal where he was paid 300 a year to publish stories favourable to the Government.

John Delane (1851-1877)

The fifth editor of The Times, Delane moved in the best society and political circles. During his 36 years in charge he attempted to keep the paper above party politics but tended to sympathise with liberal movements of the day. He provided opportunities for pioneering journalism, in particular the war reporting of W H Russell from the Crimea. The coverage brought him international renown, and Florence Nightingale later credited her entry into wartime nursing to his reports. William Rees-Mogg (1967-1981)

Lord Rees-Mogg, who still writes for The Times today, stepped down as editor in 1981 after 14 years. In his first year he wrote the famous editorial "Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?" defending Mick Jagger following his arrest and attacking cannabis laws. He also was on the BBC's Board of Governors. Having been High Sheriff of Somerset from 1978 to 1979, he was made a life peer in 1988 and sits in the House of Lords.

Peter Stothard (1992-2002)

Currently editor of the Times Literary Supplement, Stothard has written for the New Statesman, New Society and Plays and Players. During Stothard's editorship, The Times reached a circulation of more than 900,000 the highest in its history. This was the result of the "price war" which started in 1993 after owner Rupert Murdoch attempted to undercut rival titles such as The Independent and the Daily Telegraph.

Robert Thomson (2002-2007)

One of Murdoch's most trusted employees, it was announced last week that Thomson was leaving The Times to become publisher of the Wall Street Journal. His editorship will be most-remembered for the change in format from broadsheet to compact, following an earlier successful transformation of The Independent. Over five years in charge he maintained the paper's share of the quality market.

Katharine Barney