On Saturday The Times endorsed the Tories for the first time since 1992. It was not obvious that it would. Last Wednesday the paper carried an interview of Nick Clegg (its editor of two-and-a-half years, James Harding, was one of the two interviewers) verging on the laudatory. Throughout the campaign The Times has been even handed in its coverage, and has not acted as David Cameron's cheerleader.
That, you may say, is what one would expect. But is it? During its New Labour phase the paper was not always so circumspect. In 1999 it unashamedly tried to destroy the then Tory leader, William Hague, by wrongly accusing his friend and associate Michael Ashcroft of drug running, and much else. Before, during, and after the Iraq War it offered unqualified support to Tony Blair, and, like its sister paper The Sun, was not above downplaying or even occasionally suppressing bad news that might weaken the cause.
In other words, the paper cheerfully rode in the same posse as its red-top sibling, albeit much more decorously. But since The Sun declared for the Tories last autumn, and launched a series of vituperative attacks against Gordon Brown, The Times has continued on its own way. Even in coming out for the Tories two days ago it was notably measured, and paid some compliments to the Prime Minister. So it is not very surprising that Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade), chief executive of News International, the British parent company of The Times, and, as it happens, a former editor of The Sun, should have had some misgivings about Mr Harding's editorial line.
Mrs Brooks, as we must learn to call her since her marriage last year, and James Murdoch, chairman of News International, have bet the farmyard if not the farm in their passionate and uncritical support of Mr Cameron. Rupert Murdoch (James's father) is less enamoured of the old Etonian, whom only three years ago he snubbed at a party in Davos. Of course he went along with The Sun's switch of political allegiance, but it cannot have escaped his notice that the Tories have been sliding downhill ever since.
Mrs Brooks and Mr Harding are not natural bedfellows. She is an ex-red-top editor with populist instincts who, despite a fleeting foray at La Sorbonne learning some French, has limited intellectual pretensions. He is a brainy ex-Cambridge multi-linguist who cut his journalistic teeth at the liberal Financial Times. Add in Mrs Brook's reputed one-time ambition to be editor of The Times when she was still directing affairs at The Sun, and you do not necessarily have the basis for a perfectly harmonious relationship.
Given her own potentially risky championing of the Tory leader, Mrs Brooks would not be human if she did not at least slightly resent Mr Harding's more reticent approach. For the moment there may be little that she can do. But the editor of The Times is vulnerable on another front. Through no fault of his, the paper has been losing enormous sums of money – perhaps as much as £85 million (the figure is inexact because The Sunday Times is lumped together with The Times) in the 12 months to 28 June 2009. Though some cost savings have since been made, these figures are large enough to cause worry to Rupert Murdoch. He has heroically endured losses every year since he bought the paper in 1981, but not on this scale.
Mr Harding has in many ways restored The Times to the position it used to occupy – not, perhaps, before Mr Murdoch acquired it, but before the paper started its price war in September 1993. The logic of that move was to take the paper downmarket to appeal to a wider spectrum of readers. Now the price war is a distant memory, and Mr Harding has gradually eased the paper back upmarket, while also softening what had become sometimes shrill political allegiances. In several areas – business, sport, foreign news and comment, though here there is room for reservation – the paper is unquestionably very strong.
But it is also losing sums of money that are surely unsustainable for News International. Meanwhile Mrs Brooks is snapping at Mr Harding's heels – or might like to do so. Rupert Murdoch could take the view that he is doing a perfectly good job, which he is, and that it is News International's senior management, including Mrs Brooks, which stands in need of a shake-up.
The difficulty, when looking at News International, is to decide who is truly in charge – the 79-year-old Rupert Murdoch on the other side of Atlantic; James Murdoch, who evidently does not have a great affection or feel for newspapers; or Rebekah Brooks. If one had a better of sense of whom, if anyone, is in control of this clattering train, it would be easier to forecast the fate of James Harding's Times.
Sky chase the limits
No one seems to have given proper due to the role of Sky News in the Gordon Brown/Gillian Duffy affair last week. More even than the BBC News Channel, Sky News provides day-by-day, hour-by-hour coverage of what is happening on the stump, no doubt for the edification of no more than a few hundred thousand viewers at any one time. A lot of it is pretty tedious stuff, but no one could say that Sky News is not serving the democratic interest.
Last Wednesday BBC News Channel reporters were also following Mr Brown in Rochdale, along with many newspaper hacks. The BBC was outmanoeuvred by Sky News, which got the best footage. Its reporter Niall Paterson appears to have been particularly quick on the uptake. I can't help wondering whether, if it has been a BBC microphone left on the Prime Minister's lapel rather than a Sky News one, the Corporation would have released the damning tape. At the very least, telephone calls would have been made to London, whereas the Sky News people made up their minds on the spot.