Rupert Murdoch’s News UK has asked the government to relax undertakings he gave guaranteeing the independence of the Times and Sunday Times when he acquired the titles almost four decades ago.
Murdoch was forced to provide guarantees of editorial independence to gain approval of the then News International’s takeover of the titles in 1981. The guarantees also prevented the sharing of resources between the two titles. A year after doing so, the Times editor, Harold Evans, was forced out, claiming Murdoch interfered with the running of the paper.
News UK has made an application to Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, to remove some of the legal guarantees that would allow the two titles to share content and staff.
A spokeswoman for News UK has said the titles will continue to be run separately with two newsrooms and editors – John Witherow at the Times and Martin Ivens at the Sunday Times.
If the undertakings are relaxed, the publisher will be able to seek significant cost savings across the two titles, which employ 505 editorial staff.
“The persistent cost pressures facing our industry mean that we need to manage our newsrooms as carefully as possible,” said Witherow. “We need to stay competitive in an increasingly difficult market so that we can continue to build a sustainable future for Times journalism.”
Ivens said: “To protect our distinctive voice we need the freedom to work more closely to avoid duplication and invest more in the agenda-setting journalism we are famous for.”
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will have to consider the application and decide if the restrictions should be allowed to be removed. It is expected to issue an invitation to comment to the market.
The changes requested by News UK would permit a greater sharing of resources and services, including journalists, between the two papers, said a DCMS spokesman. “News UK believes that such sharing is a necessary step to mitigate the financial challenges that the two titles will face in the future. The application will now be considered by the secretary of state in a quasi-judicial manner through a fair and transparent process.”
Last week, the publisher of the Times and Sunday Times revealed a pre-tax profit of £9.6m in the year to 1 July 2018, up from a loss of £6.5m a year earlier, in its most recent publicly available filing. Turnover was up 2% year on year.
The subsidiary that publishes the Sun and Sun on Sunday revealed that its pre-tax losses more than tripled year on year to £91.2m for the same period. Turnover fell 5%.
News UK said total advertising revenue for the year increased for the first time in seven years, with continuing declines in print more than offset by growth in digital advertising.
Murdoch moved to buy the Times titles following his 1968 move into the British newspaper market, beating Robert Maxwell to buy the News of the World, the UK’s highest selling newspaper, and a year later the ailing Sun, which he reinvented.