Stephen Glover On The Press

'The Times' finally ends the price war that rocked British journalism

Almost unnoticed The Times has formally ended the price war which it began in September 1993. From today it will be selling at 60p, the same price as The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, and only five pence less than The Independent. But, if the war is over, its consequences remain with us. It is no exaggeration to say that Rupert Murdoch's reduction of The Times's cover price from 45p to 30p was the most momentous development in modern British journalism.

If you were to look back at copies of The Times from the months immediately preceding the price cut, you would, I can assure you, be astonished. Despite having been owned by Mr Murdoch since 1981, and despite having been edited from 1985 to 1990 by Charlie "Gorbals' Wilson", The Times in 1992 was still a serious and even august newspaper that was barely interested in human-interest stories or celebrities. It sold fewer than 400,000 copies a day, only slightly more than The Independent, and under its editor, Simon Jenkins, had edged upmarket. Mr Jenkins was then sacked and replaced by Peter Stothard. The Times experimented with price cuts in Kent, and then went nationwide. Many people, including myself, doubted whether the paper would win many new readers because we thought that people who took The Times were not overly concerned about price. They probably weren't; but there were hundreds of thousands of potential new readers who were.

Quite soon The Times doubled its circulation. At one point, after its cover price had been slashed to 20p, and 10p on Mondays, sales rose to some 880,000 copies a day. However, cutting the price was only half the battle. In order to retain its new readers, The Times had to alter its personality - to carry stories about celebrities and furry animals as well as human interest pieces. The dumbing-down of The Times should be traced not to 1981, when Mr Murdoch bought it, but to 1993, when he cut its price.

The effect on rivals was strangely uneven. The Guardian was almost unaffected. The Daily Mail continued to put on circulation. But The Daily Telegraph, which reduced its own cover price after initially resisting the move, has lost sales. It has also gradually followed The Times down market. By far the greatest casualty was The Independent, which lost a third of its circulation, and was driven into serious losses. In 2003 the paper regained some lost territory when it re-launched itself as a tabloid. It may be doubted whether it would have done this had it not been so hammered by Mr Murdoch's price war. In this sense the tabloidisation of the broadsheet newspapers is a consequence of what happened in 1993. The irony is that The Times has also gone tabloid, forced to follow a trend that its own price war had indirectly triggered.

So now we have a dumbed down tabloid Times, a tabloid Independent, and a Daily Telegraph which is visibly dumbing down and may still go tabloid, according to its vice-chairman, Jeremy Deedes. Enter The Guardian, which relaunches on 12 September as a Berliner, a format midway between broadsheet and tabloid. This development can also be traced back to the price war. Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian's editor, is hoping that his new paper can at least partially occupy the high ground vacated by The Times. He has even hired the aforementioned Simon Jenkins as a columnist. But whether Guardian readers wish to be lured into more Establishment territory may be doubted.

Has the price war been good for British journalism? I can see more bad consequences than good ones. Yet I imagine Mr Murdoch is happy. He may have given up tens of millions of pounds in lost revenue but he has almost doubled the circulation of The Times. No amount of promotional spending could have had that effect. He has ruined the old Times, but he has got what he always wanted: more circulation. With a higher cover price the new Times might even become profitable.

WITH THE ENTRY of Kenneth Clarke into the Tory leadership race, it is now possible to predict how titles are likely to shape up.

The Daily Mail effectively launched Mr Clarke's campaign, running a friendly interview and a sympathetic full-page leader. It did not actually declare for him, but made it pretty clear that more pluses than minuses attached to "the big beast". Its fondness for Mr Clarke is, in a way, surprising. Mr Clarke is a social liberal; the Mail is socially conservative. Mr Clarke is a Europhile; the Mail is Eurosceptic. They do agree about the Iraq war. But what really brings them together is the Mail's pragmatic hunger for a winner who can lead the Tories back to power.

The other leading Tory title, The Daily Telegraph, is much less keen on Mr Clarke, to judge by a leader it ran last week. It seems very likely that the paper will support the right-wing candidate, David Davis. The Times does not like Mr Clarke much either, and will probably back David Cameron. The Sun is not keen on the anti-Iraq war Mr Clarke. The Daily Express has yet to make up its mind. The left-leaning Guardian and Independent prefer Mr Clarke, as the candidate closest to their own point of view, as does the BBC.

How is this likely to influence the outcome? The big uncertainty remains whether the electorate will comprise several hundred thousand Tory party activists or the 198 Tory MPs in the House of Commons. If the former, the views of the Mail and the Telegraph, as the papers most widely read by activists, will be important. In that case, what the Guardian or the Independent recommend won't matter twopence, since the number of Tory activists who read those newspapers could probably be counted on the fingers of two hands.

But it shouldn't be assumed that the much smaller and more sophisticated electorate of Tory MPs is immune to what newspapers of the right and left may say. If The Guardian and The Independent and the BBC succeed in establishing that David Davis is a right-wing fruitcake (which he obviously isn't) one or two wavering MPs might be affected. Of course, they are more likely to be influenced by what the Telegraph and the Mail may have to say since these papers are supposed to have the best interests of the Tory party at heart.

In the end, though, it may not be these newspapers' final endorsements that matter so much, either to an electorate of activists or of MPs, as the way in which they write about the candidates over the next few months. The Mail may never support Mr Clarke without qualification, but it has already given him coverage that it has not accorded any of the other candidates, reporting his first speech at some length. It makes him look important. This is something for Mr Davis to worry about. Unless his supporters can persuade the Telegraph to make him appear special - and that means consistent, favourable coverage - he may be in difficulties.

scmgox@aol.com

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