Changing times at the helm of the Thunderer

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The Independent Online
I BECAME editor of the Times in January 1967. Sir William Haley, who had recently ceased to be editor himself, was the chairman of Times Newspapers. He came out of a board meeting to invite me to edit the Times and Harold Evans to edit the Sunday Times. I seem to remember that our salaries were fixed at pounds 10,000 a year.

Last week Peter Stothard accepted the succession next October to Simon Jenkins as editor of the Times. Peter Stothard is a Times man; he has been deputy editor since 1985 and is at present the US editor. He was for a period chief leader writer under Charles Douglas-Home.

I was appointed from the outside because the paper had recently been bought by Roy Thompson - I had been working on the Sunday Times, which he owned - but it is always more encouraging to the staff of a newspaper when the new editor is an insider. Editors of the Times have been writing editors, a tradition that Simon Jenkins has reasserted. Obviously Peter Stothard will be another writing editor, and that must be a strength.

He will face a very different world, and very different newspaper competition, from the one I remember in 1967. Although the Empire had been wound up, all the senior figures in Britain and abroad could remember when Britain had genuinely been a great power. Some of the expectations of that status still existed in a way that is no longer true. Certainly the Times had international access of an exceptional kind, reminiscent of the period when Abraham Lincoln had compared the power of the Times to that of the Mississippi.

The audience of the Times has also changed. By 1967 the dangerous slogan 'Top people read the Times' had been discarded as too elitist. We were searching for new and younger readers, with some success, and did not want them to think the newspaper was solely addressed to members of the Athenaeum Club. But there was still a British establishment which did predominantly read the Times, and that establishment had a greater social and educational cohesion and self-confidence than today.

In the Conservative Party, Macmillan, Butler and Douglas-Home had already handed over power to Heath, Macleod and Maudling, a younger and more meritocratic generation. But it was still a party which had many members of the old, landed squirearchy on the back benches, even if they were steadily replaced by young meritocrats as they retired. The influence of military experience was very strong. Almost all the leading figures had fought in the Second World War, just as Churchill, Macmillan and Eden were veterans of the First World War. The Labour Cabinet also contained ex-officers such as Healey, Jenkins and Crosland.

The administrative, academic and professional establishment was also much stronger, and there, too, the links to the war were very important. Leading civil servants and scientists had worked closely with the Americans in winning the war and making the post-war settlement. They had been parties to building the first nuclear weapons, the occupation of Germany, and the creation of the United Nations. Of course, they had been the junior partners, and they knew it. They were realists about power. But that experience had given them a self-confidence and a world view quite different from that of their successors.

They also enjoyed an authority and prestige that hardly anybody does today. The Royal Society; Trinity College, Cambridge; Imperial College and the great London teaching hospitals were all high-prestige sub-stations of an establishment with real authority. They do not seem to have the same prestige today, which is probably a loss.

The whole country was more traditionalist and more inclined to accept authority than it is now. At any given time the tone of a nation is set by people who were born about 50 years before. In the late Sixties that meant they had been born around the end of the First World War and had grown up between the wars. At that time the British sense of authority was still very strong, and the political and economic crises of the Thirties had fixed most people's social attitudes.

Newspapers reflected this in their audiences and the loyalty of those audiences to their newspapers. You could tell a Daily Telegraph man far more clearly then than now. He read his Telegraph in a smoking compartment on the line to Waterloo and had opinions fully in agreement with the newspaper's leading article. He had retained the manners, facial expression, and moustache of the junior officer he had once been. These readers provided a solid basis for the Telegraph's circulation. Such loyal audiences no longer exist either for newspapers or for political parties.

Then, as now, the British economy was in its usual difficulties. The year 1967 saw the long-delayed devaluation which, more than anything else, discredited the Wilson administration. To fight against devaluation and then be forced to devalue does a government extreme damage. In the 14 years I spent at the Times, the British economy was often in crisis and consistently in decline. We are again in crisis now, but so is most of the rest of the world.

The decline in the loyalty of newspaper audiences, the continued recurrence of economic difficulty and the shortage of advertising has been offset by newspapers introducing new methods of printing and breaking what was in the Seventies the intolerable power of the print unions. The result is five broadsheet daily newspapers competing with each other in London, one more than existed in the late Sixties. That is something none of us would have believed possible 25 years ago.

The Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the Independent have between them a circulation of 2.5 million. That is impressive enough. But even more impressive is their quality as newspapers. There has never been a period when the British national newspaper reader has had such a good choice of excellent broadsheet newspapers, excellent in their news coverage and range of opinions.

All these newspapers have extended the range of their subject matter to cover areas that were only being opened up in the late Sixties. All provide a foreign coverage which is far stronger than is now found in American newspapers. All provide a variety of interesting and usually contrasting columnists. The Independent still feels the loss of Peter Jenkins; the Guardian must be proud to be printing Hugo Young. However unpopular some British journalism may be, the period since the founding of the Independent has seen a flowering of excellent journalism.

The comparison with the American press, where competition has been eliminated, shows how important competition can be. The New York Times is not the paper it was in the Fifties when the New York Herald Tribune still survived. In the Fifties many people thought - perhaps rightly - that the New York Times was the best English-language newspaper in the world. It does not now provide a world coverage as comprehensive as that of any of the five London broadsheets.

Peter Stothard comes, therefore, to his post at an exceptionally competitive time - more competitive than it was in my day - but he will also have the stimulus of an exceptionally strong period in British serious journalism. Under Simon Jenkins the Times has recovered its intellectual quality - in fact, all five of the London broadsheets are probably stronger newspapers than they were three years ago. It will be interesting to see how Peter Stothard reacts to this competition.