Stephen Glover: Who would want to buy The Times?

Media Studies: The Times has been shedding sales faster than its rivals

Monday 20 December 2010 01:00

There are rumours flying around that in return for being allowed to buy the 61 per cent of BSkyB he does not already own, Rupert Murdoch will be required to sell The Times and Sunday Times. Dan Sabbagh, "head of media and technology" at The Guardian, even suggests that prominent Lib Dems want to get their hands on The Times to make it a kind of in-house newspaper. The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who will have to make the final decision about the BSkyB bid, is, of course, a leading Lib Dem.

Can any of these rumours be remotely true? It certainly seems plausible that Mr Murdoch might be required to give up some of his newspaper interests in return for 100 per cent of the satellite broadcaster. He is unlikely to want to part with the still profitable Sun and News of the World on any terms, so that would leave The Times and The Sunday Times lying on the table. The irony is that although Rupert Murdoch would almost certainly be reluctant to offload these titles, which he has owned for very nearly 30 years, his son, James, who runs the British operation, might be a lot less upset.

This is because the two papers lost £87.7m between them in the year to 28 June 2009, the last period for which we have figures. These losses will have diminished over the past 18 months as a result of cost cutting and increased advertising revenues. Even so, the two newspapers are not exactly the buy of the century. The days when The Sunday Times made a profit of a million pounds a week are long gone, and most unlikely ever to return.

As for The Times, which presumably accounts for the bulk of the losses, it has been shedding sales faster than its rivals – down 17.21 per cent last month year-on-year to a daily average of 466,311, which is not much more than half its best-ever circulation, in the mid-1990s, at the height of the price war which it began. The paper, along with its Sunday stablemate, now charges for internet access, but at best this will only be bringing in small change.

So one can see why it might not break James Murdoch's heart to get rid of these titles, the more so since he has less affection for newspapers than his father. The question is why anyone would want to buy them when The Times is almost certain to lose money for as far as the eye can see. Indeed, I doubt whether it has been profitable since Rupert Murdoch acquired it.

Any idea of a Lib Dem sugar daddy snapping up the papers seems far- fetched. There probably isn't one with deep enough pockets. It is equally difficult to think of any company that might be rich enough to take on responsibilities of this sort. Some suggest that the Mail group might be interested but, although I have no inside information, I find this difficult to believe.

It is true that the Daily Mail's founder, Lord Northcliffe, once owned The Times, and Vere Rothermere, father of the present proprietor, expressed an interest in The Sunday Times before Rupert Murdoch bought it. But a company responsible to its shareholders, which not long ago got the then heavily loss-making London Evening Standard off its books, is surely unlikely to rush into buying another loss-making title. Besides, the Mail group might be considered by the competition authorities already too dominant.

So it is difficult to make even a shortlist of potential suitors. The truth is that for the most part The Times has been fortunate to have Rupert Murdoch as its proprietor for three decades. He has admittedly dumbed down the paper but he has kept on funding its losses to the tune of tens – no, hundreds – of millions of pounds without receiving many thanks. It and its Sunday sibling have had a safe haven for 30 years. I would not be completely confidant about The Times's long-term future were Vince Cable to force its sale.

Miliband's man must woo the right

Last week I offered Ed Miliband some free advice, which he appears not to have taken. The Labour leader has appointed Tom Baldwin, a journalist on The Times, as his head of communications. My advice was that Mr Miliband should appoint someone who could persuade centre-right papers that the Labour Party has not swung violently to the Left, as well as exploit their disenchantment with the Coalition. It is true that in making Bob Roberts, the Daily Mirror's political editor, his director of news, Mr Miliband has found a popular figure able to get on with Tory journalists. But Mr Baldwin, who will be more senior, appears to dislike the Tory Press as much as it dislikes him.

His friend and predecessor Alastair Campbell is admittedly also no great lover of Tories, and probably a bit of a class warrior. But that is the Campbell we know now. The man who served as Tony Blair's director of communications during the opposition years was adept at buttering up right-wing editors and columnists. The largely successful strategy was to earn the support, or at any rate the sympathy, of right-wing newspapers.

Mr Baldwin is in no position to do the same thing even if he wanted to. Though married to an heiress, and living in an expensive pile in Highbury Fields in North London, he is said to dislike Tories and Tory newspapers. The feelings about Mr Baldwin may be judged by a two-page spread in Saturday's Daily Mail, which portrayed him as a "coke-snorting socialist" – an allegation that first surfaced in a book by Lord Ashcroft five years ago and to which he has never responded. It was not very clever of Mr Miliband to appoint such a divisive figure.

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