News International has paved the way for the merger of The Times and The Sunday Times by announcing that the Independent National Directors of the two papers support the idea.
But the merger cannot happen without Government approval of the scrapping of undertakings to protect the individual identities of the two papers, given by the News Corporation chairman and chief executive Rupert Murdoch when he bought the titles in 1981.
Mike Darcey, the new chief executive of News International, revealed the development as he announced that the long-standing editor of the Sunday Times John Witherow is to be made acting editor of The Times.
The Independent National Directors had been asked to back Witherow's appointment but had recommended that the decision be made as part of an assessment of the need for the fusion of the two loss-making newspapers. Mr Darcey decided to give Mr Witherow the acting role to bring stability to The Times, which has been without an editor since James Harding resigned in December.
Mr Darcey said that NI welcomed the “clear understanding” that the independent directors had “of the very difficult financial position of our newspapers and therefore the need to address the Undertakings given in 1981”.
Times Newspapers lost nearly £12million last year and has reported pre-tax losses totalling £145m over the past three years.
In the post-Leveson inquiry climate, when the government is under pressure not to give in to newspaper industry lobbying and when News Corp remains under the cloud of the phone-hacking and bribery scandals, there is little prospect of the Murdoch undertakings being removed.
Nonetheless, Mr Darcey said the issue would now be the subject of “continued consultation”, signifying that an application to Government for the removal of the undertakings will be made in future.
He said he could not wait for this process before giving new leadership to The Times. “We still have a responsibility to provide these two newspapers and their journalists with strong and stable leadership,” he said. “Given John Witherow’s distinguished record serving as editor of The Sunday Times over the last 18 years, we are putting him on leave from The Sunday Times and appointing him acting editor of The Times.” The Sunday Times will be edited by Mr Witherow's deputy Martin Ivens.