Who are the real predators?

In the battle for readers, incredibly `The Guardian' is siding with Rupert Murdoch. Rob Brown investigates
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The Independent Online
You don't need to be a media analyst to know that senior executives at the Guardian Media Group would give their eye teeth to see The Independent and the Independent on Sunday going out of business. Even the dogs in the streets know that. But few would have expected the political sophisticates at Farringdon Road to be so tactically foolish as to pursue this corporate objective through ferocious price-cutting - certainly not when it appears that politicians in this country are finally prepared to face up to the man whose strategy for dominating the British broadsheet market rests upon relentless predatory pricing - Rupert Murdoch.

Yet that is what is now happening, as many readers of The Independent will be aware. Many will, in the last few days, have received a letter personally addressed to you from Alan Rusbridger, (opposite) editor of The Guardian, and Will Hutton, editor of The Observer, packed with cut- price coupons.

This aggressive move has irritated Rosie Boycott, editor of the two Independent titles, who has fired off her own angry response to Messrs Rusbridger and Hutton: "I am appalled at your recent behaviour. Recently your papers and mine have been fighting the might of Rupert Murdoch. Yet here you are, supposed standard bearers for liberalism, blatantly and unashamedly using underhand tactics with only one intention in mind - to try to put us out of business."

A week ago, the House of Lords defied Murdoch's mates in the Government - including his new best mate Tony Blair - by backing an amendment to the Competition Bill which would specifically prohibit the sort of predatory pricing that has almost wrecked the finances of several rival London newspaper groups.

The significance of this development was not lost on the Guardian leader writer who exhorted peers in advance of the vote: "There has never been a better moment than this to support the Lords." In a further article headlined "The Price of Freedom", The Guardian estimated that News International was running up losses of at least 131,000 a week by selling The Times on Mondays for 20p, and offering the same deal on Saturdays for its weekend package. "No other group is, or has been in the past four years, in a position to offer the same deal to buyers as Murdoch."

The subsequent decision by the Guardian Media Group to offer almost exactly the same deal to Independent readers has dismayed several prominent peers, including Lord Borrie, the former director-general of the Office of Fair Trading. Now a director of both the Mirror Group and Newspaper Publishing plc (publisher of the Independent), he told the newly relaunched Sunday Business yesterday: "I'm sorry that somebody of the high calibre of Will Hutton should lend himself to this kind of activity."

That sentiment was echoed by Lord Desai, a professor at the London School of Economics who backed the Lords' amendment. He fears that The Guardian's behaviour could jeopardise the prospects of the Lords' amendment ever becoming law. "This will give the Prime Minister a way to eliminate the amendment, because it will look like everyone in the newspaper industry behaves this way - not just Murdoch," he said.

But the Guardian Media Group is plainly attempting to exploit recent developments at Canary Wharf.

In both their editorial columns and in the letter which was sent out to readers of this paper, they claimed when Andrew Marr was sacked as editor of The Independent that it "effectively signals the end of The Independent as originally conceived by its founding editor, Andreas Whittam Smith".

According to them, "a paper set up in order to challenge the hegemony of a few powerful press barons has itself been swallowed up by a large newspaper group with experience only in running tabloid newspapers - The Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and The People."

This is factually inaccurate. The Mirror Group has only a 46 per cent shareholding in The Independent. Exactly the same stake is held by Ireland's Independent Newspapers, whose chairman, Dr Tony O'Reilly, former president of the global food giant Heinz and a one-time Irish rugby star, has never been viewed as a pushover by anyone.

By the way, the letter sent to our readers was signed by both Will Hutton and Alan Rusbridger. Unfortunately the sender of the letters spelled the latter's name `Rushbridger'. Nice to know some standards remain unchanged at `The Grauniad'.