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Downing Street won't like the changes at the Times

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By Paul Goodman

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Roughly a month after Tim Montgomerie became Comment Editor of the Times, the paper carried a comment piece by Lord Lawson declaring that Britain should leave the EU.  Lawson thus became the first former Chancellor of the Exchequer to come out for quitting (if one discounts the tentative recent intervention of Denis Healey), and nudged the centre of gravity of opinion within the Conservative Party a little nearer the exit-door.  Lawson's piece was followed by another in the same vein from Michael Portillo - and, for the rest of the week, the Times kept it up, transforming its comment pages into a carnival of withdrawal-ness.

Downing Street will have prised open the paper each morning that week with a sense of foreboding.  What on earth was happening to what had been - under the paper's previous editor, James Harding - the Conservative leadership's last friend in Fleet Street?  Finding an answer entails glancing back at the history of the paper since Rupert Murdoch took it over during the 1980s, at the tension between his outsider's view of the world and the Times's insider one - at least in the sense of it being both the paper of record and that of the Establishment.  (I think that last term is out of date - but that's another story.)

That story is also one, of course, of the search for profit.  The Times sells approximately 400,000 copies (please note, though: all newspaper reading figures are deceptive), and though on some measures its readership is holding up better than the Telegraph's, its finances are in less healthy condition: The Times and Sunday Times together lose up to a million a week.  At one point during the 1990s, Murdoch slashed the price of the Times, in order to drive readership up - subsidising the loss from the rest of his media empire.  Then as readers shifted from newsprint to screens, he about-turned - and levelled a new charge for reading it online.

Ever the innovator, Murdoch made the Times the first Fleet Street paper to a paywall.  And unlike the more recent ones at the Telegraph and Financial Times, it doesn't offer the reader a certain amount of free content.  Paywalls may mean healthier balance sheets but they also mean fewer readers: one estimate has it that "the Times is now read by fewer people than any other general quality newspaper brand. It has a combined print and digital readership of 5,506,000. That puts it along way behind the The Guardian, Telegraph and even the Independent and the London Evening Standard".

Figures like these help to explain why Downing Street is so dismissive of the Westminster Village (it makes little effort to cultivate columnists, or even the lobby), and prefers to concentrate on TV and radio - but that, again, is another story.  Back at the Times, David Aaronovitch, Oliver Kamm, Libby Purves, Rachel Sylvester and the rest of them are making limited waves beyond the print edition.  Unlike the Telegraph, the Times has a bit of a firewall between its comment pages and its leading articles.  Tory Tim runs the first.  New Labour-leaning Philip Collins has charge of the second.

This dispersed responsbility is only one manifestation of the sense that the Times is a college, run by a youngish group of Fellows (though not necessary fellows), in which no single political view predominates.  This way of doing business is encapsulated by the way the paper produces its leading articles: unlike the Telegraph, it has maintained a large-ish stable of leader writers.  For all that, though, the paper's comment section has, at least until recently, been remarkably similar in tone: metro, smart, liberal, and untainted by the touch of popular prejudice.  The columnists are essentially unchanged since the recent change of regime, though they're producing more.

The leaders have been moved from the unsplendid isolation of page 2, where they were peculiarly placed, and reunited with the rest of the comment section.  This makes sense.  Fans of Tim will have noticed the appearance in comment of several friends of ConservativeHome, Samantha Callan and Robert Halfon among them.  There is a determined drive to make the flavour of the comment less samey.  None the less, and with all due respect to my old friend, I think that too much has written about his impact on the Times and not enough about the Editor's.  Comment Editors ultimately do their master's bidding - as I know from having been one.

At least, they do on a strong paper, and Witherow is an experienced editor.  The significance of his appointment is that, in the eternal balance between Murdoch's instincts and the Times's traditions, the new editor marks a sharp tilt back to the former.  Or perhaps, more accurately, towards a merger of the two.  After all, the Times was one of the first bastions of monetarism - first under William Rees-Mogg, later under Charles Douglas-Home.  Until recently, the Times could be relied upon not to be too critical of the Chancellor.  No longer.  Number 10 may not take papers at their own estimation.  But it won't have been happy at the change to Witherow.


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