Stephen Glover On The Press

Rupert Murdoch's problems are multiplying. Is he losing his touch?
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The Independent Online

When I suggested a few months ago that Rupert Murdoch might be losing his touch, possibly because of his advancing years, one or two people ventured that it was I who was in danger of mislaying my marbles. We have got so used to the idea that Mr Murdoch is invincible that we forget that he is made of flesh and blood like the rest of us, and that the flesh is ageing and the blood thinning.

Last week it was announced that his British company, News International, is closing a magazine called Inside Out, which is all about interiors and exteriors. No big deal, you may say: most of us had never heard of Inside Out, far less read it. But the magazine was "branded" to The Sunday Times - ie it used the newspaper's name - and News International had lavished a good deal of love and money on it. The company has also just killed off a planned women's weekly.

None of this is going to cause Mr Murdoch, who is 76 next month, to lose much sleep. But this relatively small setback should be set in the context of wider travails. His British national newspapers are all losing circulation. The Sunday Times is in particular trouble, having lost nearly 8 per cent of its sales over the past year, partly owing to its recent price increase to £2.

I realise that I am running a grave risk in even mentioning The Sunday Times. A couple of weeks ago The Guardian's new press columnist Peter Wilby tossed a few rotten apples in the direction of the newspaper for which he worked very many years ago. The Sunday Times responded by running a long article in its business section suggesting that the Guardian Media Group was in financial difficulties, that it had wasted £100m on new presses, and that The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, was counting the days to his inevitable defenestration. Those Sunday Times boys make Chicago mobsters look like a wing of the Salvation Army.

Still, truth must out, and we cannot conceal that a small chunk of the paper's circulation has disappeared. The Times, The Sun, and the News of the World have also been losing sales. Mr Murdoch will, or should, be most worried by the performance of the two red-tops, which are locked into some inexorable process of long-term decline, with The Sun in danger of slipping below a daily sale of three million copies a day in the next couple of years. Mr Murdoch, for all his former brilliance as a newspaperman, seems powerless to stem these trends.

Then there is Mr Murdoch's new freesheet in the capital, thelondonpaper, which is slogging it out with Associated Newspaper's giveaway, London Lite. Both these afternoon freesheets are losing money, and it is very difficult to see how, or when, they will become profitable. Can thelondonpaper really point the way to the future of newspapers? I cannot see it. Mr Murdoch's only compensation - a rather small one, I would have thought, in the circumstances - is that the freesheet wars which he has unleashed are half throttling Associated Newspaper's paid-for London flagship title, the Evening Standard.

Then there are the scandals that have dogged Mr Murdoch over the past year, tolerable when they come in ones and twos, but potentially damaging to business when they arrive in droves. In America the media tycoon made himself widely unpopular when his companies seemed to be promoting the former murder suspect OJ Simpson, and he was forced to cancel a book and TV interview in which Simpson gave a hypothetical account of how he might have killed his wife.

Meanwhile the antics of the News of the World's Mazher Mahmood, the so-called "fake sheikh" and one time investigative whizz, have been called into question, and 10 days ago the paper's royal editor, Clive Goodman, was led off to clink for intercepting telephone calls. Incidentally, the resgination of Andy Coulson as editor of the News of the World seems to have had the very possibly intended effect of sparing the newspaper further retrospective investigation by the Press Complaints Commission. This may not increase public confidence in that great body.

Let us just agree that News International, and its parent News Corporation, are experiencing difficulties on several fronts. Why do people assume Mr Murdoch's mental faculties, with his 76th birthday approaching, are not dimming a little? His feisty Chinese-born wife, Wendy Deng, once boasted that Rupert did not need Viagra, but the time is coming, and may have already done so, when he will need something stronger to keep him going.

The Mail on Sunday recently reported that Mr Murdoch's son James, who is the chief executive of BSkyB, in which News Corporation is the largest shareholder, was planning to move to New York to help out his Dad. The Daily Telegraph subsequently quoted "sources close to the Murdoch family" dismissing this story. But, whether it is from James or someone else, the now rather elderly Rupert Murdoch would appear to be in need of help from someone.

* Marjorie Scardino's 60th birthday has been and gone, and she has not, as some hoped she might, announced that the Financial Times is up for sale in spite of her previous opposition. Nevertheless, the rival Wall Street Journal has said it would be interested if or when it comes on the market, as I think I predicted a couple of weeks ago.

It occurs to me that I made something of a bloomer in that piece, suggesting that the FT, which is making a mere £5m or £10m a year after years of losses, would be overvalued at £650m, which is the figure being bandied about.

Somehow I forgot The Economist magazine, whose profits are about £70m a year, and of which the FT owns half. If this is included in the sale, as it surely would be, the valuation makes sense. The Economist is steaming ahead, and is almost certain to increase its profits over the coming years.

In America the magazine has, bizarrely, attained the status of holy writ, and its sale there is approaching 700,000 a week, while its overall circulation is nearly 1.3 million a week. To have half of what is arguably the fastest growing and most successful publication in the English-speaking world would be a prize indeed.

Whether it entirely deserves its enormous success is another matter. There was never a magazine surer of itself than The Economist. It makes the Daily Mail look positively racked with doubt. There is no problem in the world, no looming difficulty, to which the clever clogs perched in their ivory tower in St James's do not have an instant solution that has somehow escaped the rest of dumb humanity.

We pundits are pretty shameless in laying down the law, but The Economist has, brilliantly, raised this particular art to new heights.