The Interview: Robert Thomson
With an amused contempt for the codes of British society, Robert Thomson has come a long way, literally, to helm 'the paper of record'. Sholto Byrnes meets the antipodean editor who's erudite, engaging - and a bit of a dude
Monday 14 March 2005
"These are great times for
The Times," says Robert Thomson, who habitually and shamelessly puns on the title of the publication he has edited for the past three years. "We are in the midst of a newspaper revolution.
The Times and
The Independent have both gone compact, and I think they've both transformed their fortunes." Thomson beams. He sees good fortune in every direction that he gazes from his slightly cluttered office in Wapping. He's delighted that
The Times has overtaken
The Daily Telegraph at full-price sales; dismisses
The Guardian as preaching to a north London ghetto, and the
Telegraph as a "shopping catalogue"; and declares he has "the best job in world journalism". "But," he adds, in one of the phrases that lends credence to the description of this former Far East correspondent as "inscrutable", "a newspaper revolution is not a tea party."
"These are great times for The Times," says Robert Thomson, who habitually and shamelessly puns on the title of the publication he has edited for the past three years. "We are in the midst of a newspaper revolution. The Times and The Independent have both gone compact, and I think they've both transformed their fortunes." Thomson beams. He sees good fortune in every direction that he gazes from his slightly cluttered office in Wapping. He's delighted that The Times has overtaken The Daily Telegraph at full-price sales; dismisses The Guardian as preaching to a north London ghetto, and the Telegraph as a "shopping catalogue"; and declares he has "the best job in world journalism". "But," he adds, in one of the phrases that lends credence to the description of this former Far East correspondent as "inscrutable", "a newspaper revolution is not a tea party."
He is aware that there are challenges to the 217-year-old paper of which he is the first non-British editor. Charges of "dumbing down" have been laid at its door. The Guardian has poached its star columnist, Sir Simon Jenkins - a serious blow, as he is a former editor of the paper and the very embodiment of the "great and good" who, historically, regarded The Times as their noticeboard. Is The Times still the paper of record?
"Oh, most certainly," he says. "I've heard other papers refer to themselves as coming papers of record." The Guardian? "Yes. But for a start, most weekdays we sell twice as many papers as they do. And a paper of record will have a large number of foreign correspondents. We have 18 or 19, depending on how you count, and The Guardian doesn't have anything like that." He shifts gear. "To be fair," he continues, "I think The Guardian is a paper of record, but for a narrower arc of the population - stretching from Hoxton Square to Primrose Hill, with Islington in between."
What does he think of Jenkins's forthcoming move, prompted, it has been suggested, by the columnist's dissatisfaction with the intellectual level of the compact Times? "It was interpreted that way," says Thomson evenly, "but you saw Simon's statement, and he's not a prevaricator. He made clear how deep his relationship with The Times has been. There's no doubt Simon has made a great contribution to The Times at various moments in its history. And there's no doubt that Simon going to The Guardian will raise the average IQ there."
These are good barbs, but they don't address the position of The Times. Is it still the paper of the establishment? "The Prime Minister reads The Times, the director-general of the BBC writes for The Times, everybody in Westminster uses The Times as the bible," he says. "To be the paper of the establishment means not just to reflect the views of the establishment, but to be a resource for many people in society, including, obviously, the ruling elite. But the ruling elite is not what I would regard as the contemporary establishment."
What, in his view, is the contemporary establishment? "It's many people: people who are not in politics, people who are not in the media. It's people who run small companies, it's designers, it's middle-class people who are part, in many respects, of an expanding establishment. So, to take a very narrow view of it is fundamentally to misunderstand British society."
Thomson derides what he sees as the media's obsession with "a gated community called London". "If you're not to be elitist," he says, "then you have to have a far wider horizon and look to how Britain beyond London has changed. The Times can be read by the elite, but it shouldn't be an elitist publication." Isn't he, by virtue of his position, a member of the very elite he criticises? "It's clear that you have an influence on it," he concedes. "The important thing is not to be co-opted by it."
With his engagingly matey manner, rather scruffy ankle boots, and tie and suit outfit that look as though they come from Topshop's "Mod" section circa 1980, Thomson seems in no imminent danger of being swallowed up by the ranks of the traditional British elite. Born in 1961, Thomson was educated at the Christian Brothers School in St Kilda, Melbourne, and then read for a BA in Journalism at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. In the early 1980s, he went to Beijing for the Sydney Morning Herald, and began stringing for the Financial Times. He went on to become the FT's correspondent in the Chinese capital - where he met his wife, Wang Ping (with whom he has two young boys) - and then in Tokyo. One of those who pushed for Thomson to be made the FT's foreign news editor was Andrew Gowers, who somewhat ironically was later to find himself fighting for the editorship of the paper against his former protégé, by then the US managing editor.
In New York, Thomson "bumped into" Rupert Murdoch. It was a fortuitous acquaintance, as Murdoch later offered Thomson The Times when he was beaten by Gowers to the FT editorship. Losing the FT job rankled with Thomson for a long time. He still says today that "there are a great many good journalists there, and we will hire them all eventually". Former colleagues from the FT remember him fondly, but also as someone with a carefully concealed ambition. "He was utterly charming," recalls one, "but under that exterior of zen calm lies a ruthless ambition." Even then, his dress sense marked him out as someone different. "He takes a lot of care over his clothes, although he pretends not to," says a contemporary from FT days. "He's not a city gent type - he's a dude."
Thomson looks flustered when I bring this up. "Well, er, I'm not consciously a dude," he says, "and I don't know what a dude is, really. Or what a dude does. I genuinely don't give a lot of thought to my clothes, but if the impression is that I do, then I'm glad that I give that impression. I am wearing a suit and a tie."
They're not the kind of suit and tie one could imagine predecessors such as Peter Stothard or William Rees-Mogg sporting. And some might question whether this outsider status - as an Australian who has spent very little of his career in Britain - is an advantage for the editor of The Times. For one of the most serious accusations levelled against the publication is that it has no heart. No longer the "top people's paper" (not that it would want to be seen as such, with all the stuffy connotations that its old advertising slogan carried), it is not clear, I say to Thomson, that The Times has a strong identity.
"The paper has a philosophy," he says, "and the readers understand that. And we've never had as many paying readers in the history of the paper." (He cannot resist pointing such facts out at every possible opportunity.) I ask him to explain that philosophy. "It's politically liberal; it's tolerant; it's transatlantic. I believe in a free market, both in an economic sense and an ideas sense, and that's very much reflected both in the leaders, but also in the way we conduct ourselves. Readers are guided by signposts to the sort of material they read. It's clear when they're reading a news story, when they're reading an analytical piece and when they're reading comment.
"If you're a paper that has a philosophy of intellectual liberalism, you want a great contest of ideas to see which idea is supreme." He talks of clear separation between news and comment, but isn't there a danger of this contest spreading to the news pages and putting flight to the objectivity he claims to treasure? I begin saying that some of his political staff are notoriously close to the Labour machine, and he starts laughing before I name any names. "Well, people make observations about that," he says, "but I would argue that a lot of that is griping by journalists on other newspapers who just don't get as many scoops as the political staff of The Times. Envy generally doesn't bring enlightenment, and almost all of those comments are envy-driven. If cultivating contacts is getting too close, then every journalist should get too close."
The Times' identity and independence have been at issue ever since Rupert Murdoch took control in 1981. The suspicion has been that whatever protestations of editorial freedom the paper's executives may make, it is really Murdoch pulling the strings from above. The sudden decision at the end of October to drop the broadsheet edition of The Times and for the paper to go fully compact, for instance, was widely put down to the proprietor riding into town and issuing his orders. Not so, says Thomson.
"The timing was determined by some experiments we did in Scotland, the West Country, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where we went compact early to see what the reaction was. Prior to that, we were wondering how long we would run the two editions in parallel. But there was no cut-off date, and there was no reason at that time to cut it off." The Times' losses have long been cushioned by the huge profits of its sister publication, The Sunday Times, but wasn't the cost a factor? "The expense was a lot less than was generally reported." How much was it? "People imagined that setting up costs and the opening marketing campaign was the only running cost. But the running cost was about a fifth of the actual figure. There were various figures reported - £12m and so on - which were way off."
"After two weeks, it was just very, very obvious that we were getting phenomenal returns on the compact. In the north, it was about 24, 25 per cent increase in sales; in the Republic it was 48 per cent. That convinced me it was the right thing to do." So was it Murdoch's decision? "No, no, we had done the research." Was his appearance in London just a coincidence, then, or was he there specifically to discuss the dropping of the broadsheet? "Well, it was not the only conversation that would go on between the commercial side and the proprietor, or myself and the proprietor, about how to develop The Times. But this wasn't some decision from on high."
The removal of the broadsheet edition provoked a furious response from large numbers of Times readers, many of whom were already angry that the compact had been delivered to their homes when they had specifically ordered the traditional format. How many letters of complaint did he receive? "They were in the hundreds, depending on the day, and e-mails too. But those are not readers you're likely to lose," he says, "because if someone's so passionate about your newspaper that they write you a personal letter, even if very occasionally it's an insulting letter, it's because they care about The Times. And if, in turn, you show that you care - I wrote back to a lot of readers - you establish a dialogue with them to explain what you're doing."
Thomson understands that the changes, not just of format but also of the furniture, upset readers. "It was as much that you had moved things from a place that was very familiar to them as the actual change in format," he says. "Because passion is not one-dimensional, but format is one-dimensional." Other readers felt betrayed, since the paper proclaimed it had "no plans" to go fully compact less than a month before it did precisely that. "At that time there were no plans," says Thomson. "It wasn't the art of deceit." He admits, though, to having been "personally very, very keen, if it was the right thing to do, to go totally compact as quickly as possible".
He rejects the criticisms - common when the two editions ran side by side - that the compact is a frothier, less substantial version of the now defunct broadsheet Times. "We have bigger foreign and business sections, we've brought the leaders, comment and op-ed forward in the book," he says. "If you were truly trying to carbonate it, or whatever polite euphemism people want to use for dumbing down, they are not the areas you would choose to develop."
I mention comparisons carried out, by, amongst others, The Independent on Sunday, that clearly pointed to a less serious approach in the compact Times. "It's incredibly easy to find one story on one day that was done this way and another that was done another," he says. "If someone had done a serious content analysis over six months, they would be surprised by the outcome. Some of it is just the psychological hang-up that some critics in the media have about format. They will always find a headline on page 6, or a story on page 12, and frankly engage in eccentric exegesis."
Use of that last word, rarely heard outside the philosophy tutorial, may be enough to convince some that The Times editor is not one to lower the intellectual tone. But he goes further in arguing against charges that he is overseeing the " Daily Mail-isation" of his paper. Of the Mail's opinion pages, he says, in terms which may make more distinguished contributors such as Corelli Barnett and Max Hastings wince: "They have two pages, big headlines and loud writing. If I thought that's where we should be, I would say so, but I don't think that's where The Times should be headed. I'm sure there are readers at the top end of the Daily Mail who are coming to us, but we're not going to attract those readers by being the Daily Mail. There's a lack of logic in that conceptualisation."
The latest circulation figures show The Times having had a slightly disappointing February, with a headline sale of 679,190, down one per cent month on month, although it is still up 3.6 per cent year on year. Has the compact done its work, as far as a lift in sales is concerned? "We've had the revolution, now it's evolution," he says. "Overtaking the Telegraph at full price is something I'd hoped we might do in May or June this year, but to have done it late last year and to have kept and increased that lead - that's more than the compact doing its job. It's continuing to do a job on the opposition." I ask if he means the Telegraph. "Oh, there's no doubt," he says. Does he still want to overtake it on the headline figure? "That's still an ambition, but the headline figure in the end is less significant, and I think advertisers are becoming aware of that. There is no greater commitment from a reader than paying real money for a paper. The advertisers are also aware that some of the foreign sales are, ah, interesting."
Thomson is scathing of papers which rely too much on promotions or what he regards as "flimsy" sales. "In a paper like the Mail," he says, "the [promotional] DVD becomes a drip that's life-sustaining and circulation-sustaining. You may as well do what The Guardian and the Telegraph are increasingly doing, which is print more bulk and foreign copies. Obviously, there's a bit of a problem because land-fill sites are starting to get crowded on the Continent."
He particularly enjoys having a go at the Telegraph, perhaps because he regards the real battle as being over full-price sales, which The Times is now winning. "You get the idea that they like promotions," he muses, "that a lot of emphasis is going to be put on that. In that sense, it's in danger of becoming a shopping catalogue - a Littlewoods catalogue." I point out that he's making a particularly down-market comparison. "The Barclay brothers own both Littlewoods and the Telegraph," he says gleefully, "which is very appropriate. I'm sure there'll be a lot of cross-promotion. That's something to look forward to."
For all his evident satisfaction at how The Times is doing now (after an early period when his editorship was accused of being directionless, and an unpleasant wave of sackings - euphemistically called "agreed departures" - last summer), there is a view that Thomson is not going to stay in London for too long. "I will go on being the editor as long as it is stretching, satisfying and interesting," he says, "and I can't imagine it being anything other than that here." But he admits that at some point in the future there is "no doubt" that he will go back to the Far East, "for personal, as well as professional, reasons".
Long-term observers of Thomson, who, in his spare time, reads avidly, plays tennis and is a dab hand with a wok, see him easily rising up the worldwide Murdoch corporate ladder in a way that would have been inconceivable for previous, more English, Times editors. He and Murdoch share Australian origins and have Chinese wives. The Thomsons are known to socialise with the Murdochs when in New York. A former colleague says: "Robert's an international person; a modernist. He has a thinly veiled, amused contempt for the codes of British society. He's polished, and completely classless. There is a shared set of assumptions with Murdoch. This is just one stage of the game plan for Robert."
On this, as on his own beliefs and philosophy, Thomson is - to use again a word that he thinks is lazily applied to him, but is nevertheless appropriate - inscrutable. He refuses to be pinned down. Politically, he describes himself and The Times as being "swing voters". What about Australia, where, as a citizen, he is obliged by law to vote? "How I personally vote is, er, clearly a question for me," he says.
Are there any particular philosophers or political theorists who have influenced him? "That's not really a question you can ask someone who grew up in Australia," he says, "because it's an invitation to pretentiousness. I can't say I succeed, but I try to avoid pretension."
I put it to him that his outline of what The Times stands for is less tangible than the platforms of other newspapers. "If you have a view of society," he replies, "then you have to have enough confidence in that view to believe that, if you let the facts speak for themselves, that view will eventually be reflected." It is for Times readers to judge whether they know what that view is.
MURDOCH'S MEN AT 'THE TIMES'
CHARLES DOUGLAS-HOME (1982-1985)
Evans's replacement was a man of impeccable establishment credentials. A noted historian and the nephew of the former Conservative prime minister, Lord Home of the Hirsel, he presided over the newspaper against the background of the rise of Thatcherism. He died in 1985 at the age of 48.
CHARLES WILSON (1985-1990)
A Scot who had learned his craft on the Daily Mail before editing the Glasgow Evening Times and the Herald, Wilson joined the Times in 1982. He was the paper's editor throughout the late Eighties when it was forced to fight for its identity in a highly competitive market after the launch of The Independent in 1986.
PETER STOTHARD (1992-2002)
The longest-standing of Rupert Murdoch's Times editors, Stothard edited the paper at the height of a bitter circulation war with the Daily Telegraph, during which the paper was accused of lurching downmarket. Stothard joined the Times in 1980 and was deputy editor for six years before acceding to the throne. He was knighted in 2003 and now edits the Times Literary Supplement.
SIMON JENKINS (1990-1992)
Still one of the best-known journalists in Britain, Jenkins recently ended a 15-year relationship with the Times when he announced his departure for the Guardian. His appointment as editor of the Times followed a long stint as political editor of the Economist and a time as editor of the Sunday Times's investigative Insight team. After standing down as Times editor in 1992 he remained a columnist on the paper.
(2002) Recruited from the Financial Times, Thomson will go down in history as the man who turned the Times into a compact (embracing an idea pioneered by the Independent). The Australian believes he has come through a difficult period of transition (when the paper suffered redundancies and heavy financial losses) and put the Times in the ascendancy.
HAROLD EVANS (1981-1982)
Not really a Murdoch man at all, in the sense that he left after less than a year to become a director of Goldcrest Films and Television. When Rupert acquired the Thunderer, Parliament had insisted on guarantees that the paper would retain its editorial independence. Evans has since said: "In my year as editor of The Times, Murdoch broke all these guarantees."
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