Speculation mounted over the editorship of The Times yesterday when the current incumbent, Peter Stothard, was given six months' leave on a project for the newspaper's proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. The decision came as a surprise as The Times recently won a top prize at the What The Papers Say awards.
A News International spokeswoman would only say: "Peter Stothard is taking time off to work on future projects relating to the paper." However, Mr Stothard told department heads he would be away for several months.
Insiders say Mr Murdoch has told Mr Stothard to spend the next six months touring the world, researching and promoting the paper's online operation - and one source added: "It is rather odd for the editor of The Times to be a salesman for an internet project."
A similar arrangement did take place at the Financial Times where Richard Lambert took time off for the same reason and did return to edit the paper. But the culture at News International is different.Mr Murdoch is known in Wapping parlance for "putting editors in the departure lounge", and he is thought to be unhappy with the paper's failure to mount a serious circulation challenge to The Daily Telegraph. Heavy investment went into the paper's new tabloid second section, which has shown weaknesses in both design and content. It is strongly rumoured that Mr Murdoch is planning budget cuts.
Despite Mr Stothard's recent awards success, his proprietor has a history of not allowing his editors to feel too secure. If he does not return, possible successors include the Sunday Business editor, Jeff Randall, the Sunday Times editor, John Witherow, Dominic Lawson, editor of The Sunday Telegraph, and Ben Preston - son of the former Guardian editor, Peter Preston - who was recently appointed as Mr Stothard's deputy. Mr Preston, 36, will edit the paper in Mr Stothard's absence.