There's still time for Prescott to make his apologies

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The Independent Online

One of life's great mysteries is why the Times loses quite so much money. Recent figures, almost entirely ignored by the media, though not, to its credit, by the Times, suggest that last year the paper lost a record amount. The Times and the Sunday Times - unfortunately the two titles are lumped together - lost £46.9 million in 2005, an increase of 17 per cent on its deficit in 2004, despite a 4 per cent rise in revenue. The Sunday Times remains healthily profitable, and is estimated by some to be making £50 million a year. If this is true, the Times is losing a staggering amount of money.

According to some experts in the dark art of accounting, these figures for the combined losses of the Sunday Times and the Times are not wholly to be trusted. Well, maybe, but surely they are not asking us to believe that a man of such vast probity as Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of both newspapers, could be guilty of dodgy accounting. In the absence of other evidence, we had better take seriously the figures that have been set before us. Whatever suspicions we may have, it is clear that the financial position of the Times deteriorated sharply between 2004 and 2005.

The big question is why Rupert Murdoch - or, to be precise, News Corp, the global media company that he controls - is prepared to throw such enormous sums at the Times.

Oh, these losses are a drop in the ocean of News Corp, you may say. But can that really be true? I can't imagine its shareholders all taking such a relaxed attitude. Perhaps they take comfort in the thought that the Times has a promising future if only it can overhaul the Daily Telegraph, and get to grips with the Daily Mail's enviable readership.

When the Times went tabloid it quickly put on sales. It also went another notch downmarket. I am sure that Daily Mail executives were worried, and it may well be that the Times stole 10,000 or 20,000 buyers from that paper. (I should again remind readers that I write a column for the Mail.) In the event, the tabloid, more popular Times has turned out to be less of a threat to the Telegraph and the Mail than those newspapers feared. The latest ABC figures show that last month the Times sold 4.5 per cent fewer copies than a year previously. It is perfectly true that over the same period the Independent lost 3.5 per cent of its sales while the Guardian, after lavishing £100 million on new presses, added only 1.9 per cent. My point is only that the Times has not made the dramatic headway Mr Murdoch hoped for, and his rivals feared.

Last week the Times carried this "puff box" beneath its masthead: "Crack the Da Vinci Code and win a Smart car." I wondered whether I could be the only person in Britain to recoil at such barbarism and vulgarity in a newspaper that was once among the most serious and best written in the world. Surely not. And I thought: why, Rupert? If you had destroyed the Times for money I could have understood it, but you have ruined it only in exchange for ever-mounting losses, and your goal of overtaking the Telegraph and pillaging the Mail's readership seems an ever more distant dream.

And then another thought crept along. Rupert Murdoch is 75, and time stops for no man, not even him. Is it possible that his successor as chairman of News Corp may resent the Times's enormous losses, and that he, or some new owner, will abandon the mad idea of turning it into a mass-circulation newspaper, and return it to its roots? With such fantasies I try to console myself.

* I owe an apology to Peter Hill, editor of the Daily Express. Last week I wrote that his paper, perhaps mindful of its wallet, carried a paparazzi picture of Kate Middleton on its front page but not inside. I was wrong. There were inside photographs of Ms Middleton and Prince William. I missed the cross reference.

There was also a mistake - this time not my fault - in the picture caption, which suggested that Sir Victor Blank is stepping down as chairman and chief executive of Trinity Mirror. He was, of course, only the chairman. Sly Bailey is the company's chief executive.

When The Mail on Sunday published Tracey Temple's diaries, John Prescott said he intended to take the paper to the Press Complaints Commission. He alleged details of his relationship with Ms Temple had been "spiced up" for money, and suggested that much of what she had written was pure invention.

Two weeks later the PCC has received no complaint from the Deputy Prime Minister. Given the delay, one wonders if it will ever arrive and, if not, why not.

Some will suppose Downing Street told Mr Prescott to hold his fire. Perhaps he has himself arrived at this conclusion. The Government does not want the matter being dragged up again.

But it is equally likelythat Mr Prescott never intended to refer the newspaper to the PCC in the first place. By invoking the PCC, and saying he would complain, he may have hoped to convince the public the allegations were untrue, though they were not.

If this is right, Mr Prescott owes Ms Temple and The Mail on Sunday an apology. He might also say sorry to the PCC for taking its name in vain. But he can still establish his good intentions by making the complaint.

* Readers may be wondering what has happened to my esteemed colleague Roy Campbell-Greenslade. When last sighted, he had resigned as the Daily Telegraph's media commentator after one of his pieces had been kept out of the paper for reasons of censorship.

Roy has surfaced as a columnist on the London Evening Standard. Last week he returned to the so-called City Slickers affair, which involved Piers Morgan when he was editor of the Daily Mirror. Roy's column on the same subject had been canned by a querulous Telegraph management after frantic telephone calls by a senior Trinity Mirror executive.

The essence of Roy's case is simple: that when the Press Complaints Commission first considered the City Slickers affair six years ago it was told a falsehood by Trinity Mirror. This was that Morgan had purchased £20,000 of shares in a company tipped in the Mirror. In fact, the true amount was £67,000. Trinity Mirror misled the PCC.

Roy asked the PCC to re-open the case, but it has just refused to do so. Why? The more sceptical among us will conclude that it does not want to indict the senior executives of a major newspaper for having lied to it. Those who maintain that the reflex action of the Press Complaints Commission is to defend the interests of newspaper groups will feel that their point has been proven.

scmgox@aol.com

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