THE ASHCROFT AFFAIR: `Times' editor insists he still has the confidence of his proprietor

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PETER STOTHARD, The Times' scholarly, publicity-shy editor, might puzzle his proprietor. But, despite the fact that executives at the paper felt The Times was trounced by the way that the Tories presented the Michael Ashcroft settlement, few within News International believed his job was in jeopardy.

There might have been no winners - both sides have had to pay their own costs. But the perception was that the Tories made the running in publicising the verdict, leaving the impression of a Times climbdown. The Times could have broadcast its version on Wednesday night, saying that the Tories did not want a libel case in the run-up to an election, but it didn't.

The decision to bring in Jeff Randall, editor of Sunday Business, as go-between must have left Mr Stothard, 48, perplexed. Editors should, and usually do, call the shots in such cases, albeit liaising closely with proprietors. Mr Randall's involvement was a slight on The Times editor, and an ineptly destabilising way of doing things. It would have been irritating for Mr Stothard as Mr Randall has been mentioned in the press as his heir apparent.

Yesterday, Mr Randall was interviewed on Radio 4's The World At One. Asked what Mr Stothard's involvement was, he said: "I don't know the role of Peter in this." The Times editor was interviewed on the PM programme. He was adamant that he was "fully involved" in writing the statement on the front page of The Times, although this evaded the point of not being involved at the earliest stage.

But he did protest: "To say I was excluded from it is nothing but the all too common fantasy when other newspapers discuss Mr Murdoch and The Times." Asked if he thought there was a lack of confidence in him from Mr Murdoch, Mr Stothard replied: "No."

Mr Murdoch has told at least one confidant that he is not making any changes of editor prior to the next general election. Lapses of judgement tend to lead to editors being bawled out, rather than thrown out. Mr Murdoch stood by Kelvin Mackenzie after The Sun was savaged in the courts for libelling Elton John.

The Times' circulation remains double what it was before the price- cutting policy pursued by Mr Stothard. Its regular forays downmarket may have deprived it of a distinct identity. But Mr Stothard has presided over a number ofscoops, most recently Michael Portillo's interview revealing his youthful homosexuality.

An Oxford compatriot of Mr Stothard has revealed that in his student days the Times editor wandered alone along the banks of the Isis reading The Aeneid. But such a dark secret in one's past is not a sackable offence, even in Murdochland.