December 14, 2012

Good Times, Bad Times

Under: Media | News | Random thoughts

The heading on this piece was the title of a book written by Harold Evans after his resignation as editor of The Times in 1981. In his book, Evans covered his long career as editor of the Sunday Times, his move to the daily paper when the group was acquired by Rupert Murdoch, his subsequent wrangles with his new proprietor and, ultimately, his departure over matters of editorial independence.

Yesterday’s Times front page carried the news of the resignation of the current editor, James Harding. Like Harold Evans, he’s commanded enormous respect from his rivals, his staff and his readers. Like Evans again, he’s led a pursuit of quality and of campaigning journalism that have made The Times a fine newspaper – one with which I’m happy to find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with nearly every day, such is its balance. And like Evans once more, it seems he’s going because he’s fallen out with his boss.

Rupert Murdoch couldn’t make him leave: when he acquired the group, the Government of the day required him to agree to an undertaking not to appoint or dismiss editors without the approval of the majority of independent national directors. But there’s more than one way of achieving one’s ends, and we can only wonder at what’s prompted James Harding’s resignation, which of course obviates any rules governing dismissal.

Why has James Harding resigned? We don’t know, but the paper’s own article on the story hints it may have been because of his public criticism of News International. Just before the Leveson Report was published, he wrote, “The failure of News International to get to grips with what had happened at one of its newspapers suggested that the company had succumbed to that most dangerous delusion of the powerful, namely that it could play by its own set of rules.” I don’t suppose that went down well with the people upstairs.

It’s a terrible shame. The Times runs outstanding campaigns. It has some brilliant columnists. Its foreign news is second to none. And a former senior journalist from the FT told me two or three years ago that he and his colleagues used to set their own news agenda by what was in The Times’s business section that morning – the section, by the way, for which James Harding was responsible before he became overall editor.

Before the Leveson inquiry, Rupert Murdoch was asked about the power proprietors can exercise over their editors. He said, “Let’s face it, if an editor is sending a newspaper broke, it is the responsibility of the proprietor to step in for the sake of the journalists, for the sake of everybody. And particularly his responsibility to his many thousands of shareholders.”

Ah, so maybe that was it, then. Except no: James Harding managed to cut his editorial budget while expanding coverage, and sales figures at the paper are solid. Readership during key periods earlier this year – notably, the Jubilee and the Olympics – was better still.

Who knows the real reason? I don’t. But I do know James Harding’s departure is very sad news – and I’m worried it might signal the start of a decline in quality at the paper he leaves behind.

Look at the Sunday Times under Evans. Look at it now – it’s almost embarrassing. If history is repeating itself, let’s hope it’s restricted only to the loss of two great editors, and not of two great (or once-great) papers.

 

What do you think?

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  • Tom Leatherbarrow says:

    A good blog but I must take a contrarian view. In my view the Times has been declining for some time for three reasons. Firstly, the quality of the comment section – Alice Miles, Simon Jenkins and Peter Riddell have never been adequately replaced. In part this may be due to the second reason namely the paywall – commentators hate them (the New York Times found this) because it stopped them getting to a wide audience. I wonder whether this has had an effect on journalist recruitment?

    Thirdly, and most importantly, the hand of editorial control from Rupert has far too visible for comfort. I vividly remember the Beckham kidnapping story which was proved to be a NOTW set-up job and which escalated as far as the Attorney General. There was coverage everywhere except the Sun and The Times! And don’t even get me started on phone hacking!

    The truth is that Rupert has lost his way. His newspapers are now a means to exercise power and bend public opinion in the direction he wants.

    Ultimately good editors like Harding know that they are being compromised. I got the sense from the reports that he didn’t put up much of a fight – you can hardly blame him!