In a new preface to his book, Good Times, Bad Times, the former Sunday Times editor connects the phone-hacking crisis to earlier events at News International.
There is a clear connecting thread between the events I describe in Good Times, Bad Times and the dramas that led so many years later to Rupert Murdoch's "most humble day of my life". I was seated within a few feet of him in London on 19 July 2011, during his testimony to a select committee of MPs with his son James at his side. Not many more than a score of observers were allowed into the small room at parliament's Portcullis House, across the road from the House of Commons and Big Ben. A portcullis is a defensive latticed iron grating hung over the entrance to a fortified castle, the perfect metaphor for News International, which perpetually sees itself as beset by enemies.Murdoch, as chairman and only begetter of the giant multimedia enterprise News International (NI), was called on to defend his castle and himself as best he could for the outrages of hacking and police bribery inflicted on the British public by his News of the World and the coverup that he and his company conducted over nearly five years. The paper Murdoch most affects to despise, the Guardian, was the instrument of his undoing.
It persisted with the unravelling story almost alone in the face of repeated denials, defamation and threats and the sloppy exonerations of News International by Scotland Yard and the Press Complaints Commission. Among those waiting patiently – one might say humbly – for admission to the Portcullis House committee room was Nick Davies, the backpacking Guardian reporter, who led the paper's investigation courageously sustained by his editor Alan Rusbridger. It was cheering to think of the impetus for good contained in Davies's little notebook as he assiduously scribbled away during the hearing.
Murdoch had begun badly on jetting into London, all smiles in a jaunty panama hat and embracing his ex-editor and CEO Rebekah Brooks whom he called his "first priority"; she was arrested days later. He made his first humbling visit, this one to apologise to the family of Milly Dowler, a missing schoolgirl. They were given brief hope she might be alive when messages on her cell phone were erased. Alas, the erasures were not by Milly, who had been murdered, but by an obscene hacker employed by Murdoch's News of the World to make room for more messages the paper could milk for despicable "exclusives". Murdoch hoped to expunge the memory of that obscenity by expunging the News of the World itself. In 1969 it had been his first acquisition in Britain but the immediate end of 168 years of publication was left to his son James, its chairman.
Observers in the Portcullis room were divided on the efficacy of Murdoch's testimony. Some thought his answers revealed a doddery, amnesiac, jetlagged octogenarian. He cupped his ear occasionally to ask for a question to be repeated; at one moment he referred to the prime minister, David Cameron, when he meant Alastair Campbell, former prime minister Tony Blair's press adviser. Others saw the testimony as a guileful imitation of "junior", the ageing mentor to Tony, the capo in the Sopranos, who feigned slippered incompetence to escape retribution. I thought, on the contrary, that Murdoch was a good witness, more direct than his son James, who unnervingly sported a buzz cut reminiscent of Nixon's chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. His father was as taciturn as James was loquacious. Murdoch père paused to run each answer through his shrewd mental calculations of the legal implications of his own words, occasionally smiting the tabletop in front in a kind of brutal authoritarian emphasis that began to make his wife Wendi Deng distinctly nervous. She leant forward to restrain the militancy.
But Murdoch senior's bluntness had the effect of rendering James's testimony inconsequential. His father's testimony in the Portcullis room had flashes of mordant directness, one of his more engaging qualities. When a committee member referred to the "collective amnesia" of his executives, he riposted, "you mean lying" and he was right. James, the eager mollifier, was too ready to seek refuge in convoluted references to "distinguished outside learned counsel" mixed with patronising explanations for the plebs on how large corporations delegate small details like paying off villains.
In fact, the only telling evidentiary moment in the hearing was the extraction of an admission that News International was still paying said villains. Murdoch père murmured they had to do it by "contract" – hush money to you and me though nobody thought to call it that and nobody, alas, asked to hear the details. Next day, NI announced they would stop the payments. The concession to decency lost impact because on its heels the former editor of the defunct News of the World, and its legal adviser, united to say James was in error when he testified they had never told him that more than one reporter had offended. They persisted in so accusing James when recalled to the committee on 6 September. That was brave, but it would have been wiser to come clean the first time they were questioned instead of sticking to the party line. My own guess is that James, who had been an able leader at BSB, got lost in the intricacies of the coverup.
It was a pity that all the forensic wordplay at the main hearing on 19 July was interrupted by a young anarchist loon behind me with a plastic bag containing a paper plate he'd surreptitiously filled with Burma shave foaming cream just a moment before he bore down to deposit it on Murdoch. The foamer proclaimed his victim to be a "greedy billionaire". Everyone marvelled at the elegant Wendi Murdoch uncoiling with ferocious speed to land a left hook on the assailant. I was impressed, too, but more so by the curious fact that we'd all jumped to our feet while PC Plod lumbered in ("hello, hello, what have we here?"), but Murdoch himself stirred not at all. He sat still, staring straight ahead throughout the assault and the eviction of the press.
How much Rupert Murdoch knew and when he knew it may not be pinned down because he exercises what the sociologist Max Weber defined as "charismatic authority" where policy derives from how the leader is perceived by others rather than by instructions or traditions. The concept of charismatic authority as applied to the Murdoch empire may be best understood – as a concept, I emphasise, and not a personal comparison – in the use made of Weber's definition by Sir Ian Kershaw, historian of the Third Reich. Kershaw argues that Hitler was not much absorbed by the day-to-day details of Nazi Germany's domestic policy, but was nonetheless a dominant dictator. Kershaw explains the paradox by adopting the phrase of a Prussian civil servant who said the bureaucrats were always "working towards the Fuhrer". They were forever attempting to win favour by guessing what the boss wanted or might applaud but might well not have asked for. Similarly, in all Murdoch's far-flung enterprises, the question is not whether this or that is a good idea, but "What will Rupert think?". He doesn't have to give direct orders. His executives act like courtiers, working towards what they perceive to be his wishes or might be construed as his wishes. A few examples from the Times follow. They act this way out of of fear, certainly, because executions are so brutal but the fear also reflects a more rational appreciation of the fact that his "wild" gambles so often turn out to be triumphs lesser mortals could not even imagine.
The experiences I describe in Good Times, Bad Times have turned out to be eerily emblematic. The dark and vengeful undertow I sensed and then experienced in the last weeks of my relationship with Murdoch correctly reflected something morally out of joint with the way he ran his company. In the decades that followed my year at the Times, the inside rot was matched only by the menace that came to represent to the civil discourse and the whole political establishment. Prime ministers, Tory and Labour alike, were so scared of blackmail by headline they gave him whatever he asked. In the opening pages here, I recount the political manoeuvres by which he secured a big stake in BSkyB – entering Downing Street by the back door to get Mrs Thatcher to waive the competition law just as she had done for his acquisition of Times Newspapers in 1981.He has chutzpah like nobody else. Even as the hacking scandal started to erupt in 2007, and full control of Sky was within his grasp, Murdoch was protesting that hacking was "not part of our culture anywhere in the world", when it plainly was part of the culture to anyone who bothered to look. In actions settled out of court in the US, he's had to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars to companies who testified, among much malefactions, that their business secrets were stolen by News America hacking into their password-protected websites. According to court testimony, the executive who presided over the theft, Paul Carlucci, explained to the victims: "I work for a man who wants it all, and doesn't understand anybody telling him he can't have it all." Carlucci was subsequently promoted to publisher of the New York Post.
There is tragedy in the life of Rupert Murdoch. Here is a brilliant man with the vision and determination to challenge the somnolent TV networks in the U.S. and to create a fourth, albeit freighted now with political bias. Here is a newspaper romantic with the strategic nerve to do what no other newspaper management had been able to do, free the British press of the stultifying burden of the corrupt and violent press room unions.
Movie buffHere is a movie buff who saw immediately the force in director Marty Scorsese's plea to preserve the libraries of great movies decaying on old film – and acted at once at his Fox while other studio managements equivocated. Here is a man capable of personal loyalty to trusted courtiers but of remorseless betrayal when impeded.
The story in Good Times, Bad Times is of Rupert Murdoch at the real beginning of his inexorable rise. Since it was first published in the eighties, there have been many changes in the British media. We celebrated the launch of the first new national newspaper in Britain in the twentieth century, the Independent; that emancipation of journalism from the decadent print unions; and a unique enlargement of the power of the central figure of the story, made possibly only with the complicity of Margaret Thatcher who performed as Murdoch's poodle in 1987 and in 1990, as she did in 1981 and as Cameron was prepared to do before engulfed by his closeness to the principal suspects in the hacking scandals. All these developments in 2011 have their seed in the characters and events described in this book. The Independent, launched in 1986, gained its moral ground (and a good number of its staff) when the Times manifestly abandoned its own political independence as part of the Thatcher-Murdoch relationship that I describe. Paradoxically, the Independent was also nourished at birth by Murdoch's redemptive blow for press freedom early in 1986 when he finally defeated the print unions at Wapping. This triumph, fashioned from the original conception of Today by Eddy Shah in 1984, broke the disruptive power of the chapels and altogether transformed the economics of the British press. The carnivore, as Murdoch aptly put it, liberated the herbivores. Of course, if the print unions had behaved a whit less treacherously and corruptly in the seventies and early eighties, when their anarchy forced out the most enlightened commercial ownership a newspaper group has ever known, Murdoch would never have got his chance to take over Times Newspapers from the Thomson Organisation in the first place. And he would never have succeeded in that chance if the print union leaders had stayed faithful to the staff buy-out we planned with them under the aegis of the former prime minister, James Callaghan. They took Murdoch's shilling and he put them to the sword. It was an equitable sequel.
Murdoch's acquisition of Times Newspapers in 1981, and his ability to manipulate the newspapers after 1982, despite all the guarantees to the contrary to Parliament were crucial elements in building his empire. He lies with such consummate ease and conviction, but he is also remarkably prescient about how politicians will swallow the most gigantic with barely a gulp. At the time I did not know what he was saying privately while he was trying to buy Times Newspapers but it turned out to be spot on both about insouciant cynicism and the attention deficit order of political leaders: "You tell these bloody politicians whatever they want to hear," he said to biographer Thomas Kiernan, "and once the deal is done you don't worry about it. They're not going to chase after you later if they suddenly decide what you said wasn't what they wanted to hear. Otherwise they're made to look bad, and they can't abide that. So they just stick their heads up their asses and wait for the blow to pass."
If Prime Minister David Cameron wishes to demonstrate the sincerity of his new aversion to capitulating to Murdoch he could take this opportunity to insist on enforcing the promises Murdoch made to parliament in 1981 when ministers performed exactly the gymnastic feat Murdoch described.
The ministers responsible for enforcing the law, John Biffen in the first case and Lord Young in the second, fully lived up to Murdoch's classification of politicians as invertebrates. They were both, of course, hardly free agents. At their back they could always hear Boadicea's chariot hurrying near. Whatever the anti-monopoly law might enjoin and the public interest in pluralism might require, Thatcher would tolerate no defence of competition when the would-be press monopolist was her faithful flak. And when he appeared in the role of interloper, as he did with satellite television, she would tolerate no defence of monopoly.
In this case the monopoly was one her own government had approved when the Independent Broadcasting Authority awarded British Satellite Broadcasting the licence from among seven competitors, including Murdoch. The groups owning BSB, having risked hundreds of millions of pounds, discovered their exclusive contract was not worth the paper it was written on the moment Murdoch challenged them. He beamed into Britain his pan-European satellite service, Sky, whose satellite was under Luxembourg ownership, and did it before a fumbling BSB was ready with its satellite. The BSB directors protested to Thatcher and had their ankles bitten: competition was good for them.
Once again, Murdoch was to prove above the law. The cross-ownership regulations provided that a national newspaper could not own more than 20% of any British television company. There was never a prayer that Thatcher would force Murdoch to abandon either medium. In 1990, when he negotiated a merger between Sky and the BSB partners with a 50% stake for himself, the cross-ownership rules made the deal plainly illegal. It was also a clear breach of BSB'S contract with the Independent Broadcasting Authority. The home secretary, David Waddington, conceded the unlawful nature of the merger in parliament. But Murdoch had seen Thatcher privately four days before the deal was announced and once again the fix was in. The government washed its hands of the affair. A murmur of regret that the law could be broken with the prior knowledge of the prime minister might have given a touch of decency to the proceedings, but it would have taken a bolder spirit than Waddington. The Independent pinned down the essential hypocrisy: The fact is that Murdoch employs his media power in the direct service of a political party, which now turns a blind eye to what it has itself depicted in parliament as a breach of the law in which Murdoch is involved. So much for Thatcher's lectures on media bias. In other spheres she endorses the principle that accumulations of power are bad for democracy. Why not in this one?
Political allyWhy not? The reasons for Thatcher's perverse interventions on all matters concerning Murdoch may be more diverse than the simple wish to entrench a political ally. Murdoch is the kind of freebooter she admires; she may have been seduced by his dash, and his contempt for the liberal intelligentsia, into thinking that what is good for Murdoch is good for the country. It would be interesting to know her reasoning, but on her elevation to the Lords she took the title of Lady Amnesia: one searches in vain in her 1993 memoir for any explanation of her contradictory actions, or even a mention of Murdoch.
The period when Murdoch flung himself into the battle against BSB demonstrated the force of his concentrated energy and his relish in gambling for high stakes. It also demonstrated his disdain for independent journalism. His five newspapers, including the Times and Sunday Times, blatantly used their news columns to plug their proprietor's satellite programs and undermine the competitor. It was left to the Financial Times to show that a commercial interest need not entail a sacrifice of integrity. Its owners, the Pearson Group, had a stake in BSB, but the readers would never have known it from the FT's treatment of the news. The FT journalists should have petitioned for the canonisation of their chairman, Lord Blakenham, who in 1987-8 had seen off a bid by Murdoch to add that newspaper to his collection.The British story has parallels in the United States. When Murdoch bought Metromedia's six big city television stations in 1985, the Federal Communications Commission, with a Reagan-appointed chairman, gave him an unprecedented two-year waiver of cross-ownership rules so that in New York, Chicago and Boston he could run television stations and newspapers.
Nobody, however, could waive for him the requirement, on acquiring a television station, of forsaking Australia and taking American citizenship, but arrangements were made to spare him the egalitarian stress associated with it. Instead of sitting it out for an hour or two with the huddled masses in the courtroom, he emerged from the judge's chambers just before the judge herself.
The secret of Murdoch's power over the politicians is, of course, that he is prepared to use his newspapers to reward them for favours given and destroy them for favours denied. The way the cross-ownership struggles worked out provided an intriguing demonstration of this in 1993. Murdoch hoped that the two-year waiver on cross-ownership agreed with the FCC might become permanent, but in 1987 Senator Edward Kennedy slipped a late-night amendment on an appropriations bill resolution that had the effect of killing the deal. Murdoch had to sell the New York Post, a paper he was loathe to lose. He had never been able to make a success of it, but he valued the political base it gave him.
Kennedy's amendment was defended in the press by committee chairman Senator Ernest Hollings on the high ground: "The airwaves belong to the public. Concentration of media ownership threatens free speech. No man is above the law." But Kennedy's tactic was also widely seen as revenge for his years in the Murdoch pillory: he had been regularly savaged in the Post, the Boston Herald and the supermarket tabloid Star. The Herald was pleased to refer to Kennedy as Fatso. The surprising sequel in 1993 was that this war looked to be over. Who should back Murdoch when he offered to save the bankrupt Post if he could also keep New York's WNYW, part of the Fox network? Kennedy.
Kennedy who had forced him to sell the Post in the first place.
But why? The first clue came the day Murdoch took over the Post. He announced that he had secured an option to buy back the television station in Boston WFXT, and not long afterwards that he was ready to give up the Herald, Kennedy's tormentor.
Allan Sloan surely had it right in his Newsday column: "What we've got here is a your typical winking and nodding mutual-back-scratching deal. If you doubt that Kennedy and Murdoch have come to terms, I've got a bridge I'd love to sell you."
Murdoch had bad times as well as good in the past decade. His record of broken promises was much bruited in 1983-4 when he tried to buy Warner Brothers and failed, and did buy the Chicago Sun-Times. The Chicago deal had echoes of the Times Newspapers sale: a consortium headed by the publisher Jim Hoge was betrayed by its owners, the Field family. Murdoch's chameleon charm was brilliantly deployed in appearing square and safe to Marshall Field and maverick to his racier brother Ted. The Sun-Times journalists were not so biddable. Hoge quit and the columnist Mike Royko crossed the street to the Tribune with the Roykism that no self-respecting dead fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch newspaper. It was a sour experience for Murdoch. He sold the paper, profitably, in 1986, after moving into television. He had a happier time acquiring a controlling interest in Fox movie studios and using the former Metromedia television stations to build a fourth national television network with the creative genius of Barry Diller. That was a considerable achievement, but he was spending other people's money like a Master of the Universe. In October 1988 he paid just under $3bn for TV Guide and precipitated his worst time. The man so apt to eviscerate a manager for a minor miscalculation took his company into a debt of more than $7bn that it could not service and did it on the advent of a recession and a credit squeeze. By 1990 his international holding company, News Corporation, was on the brink of bankruptcy. At the same time a Channel 4 television exposé and a subsequent book by Richard Belfield, Christopher Hird and Sharon Kelly stripped away some of the mystique. At a critical time the programme demonstrated how News Corporation, headquartering itself in Australia, had for years concealed its true condition. It had exploited the lax accounting and taxation standards of Australia to create a web of intercompany debt and avoid taxation. Murdoch had seemed unstoppable, but in his 60th year he was obliged to go on a humiliating global roadshow, in the words of Australian Business Monthly, exhorting and pleading with bankers to give him breathing space.
It was touch and go. He had to sell assets, including New York magazine and Premiere in America, he had to launch even more draconian cost-cutting programmes, and he had to dilute his equity below 40%. But Murdoch is no Maxwell, though at that time it was natural to regard the two as tabloid twins.
Maxwell was the meat axe, a muddler, a volatile sentimentalist, a bully and a crook. Murdoch is the stiletto, a man of method, a cold-eyed manipulator. Using all his persuasive talents and powers of concentration, he held on to his newspaper holdings in Britain and to Sky, and to Fox and Channel 5 in the United States, and by 1993 he had bounced back. He was again one of the world's most powerful media barons, and certainly the dominant force in British communications. He controlled Sky Television and HarperCollins publishing, and nearly 33% of national newspaper sales. Somehow he had also convinced the BBC, in the prone personages of Marmaduke Hussey and Michael Checkland, to let Sky have a monopoly of live premier league soccer on television. Both ITV and BBC were bidding high for live premier league soccer (and less for recordings), but the BBC is said to have indicated that its offer to pay for the right to broadcast Match of the Day recordings was confined to an FA deal with Sky. ITV executives could be forgiven for thinking that Murdoch's personal relationship with Hussey – he had made the gesture of keeping him on a consultant at Times Newspapers in 1981 – had as much to do with this debacle as BBC rivalry with ITV. In any event, terrestrial viewers of both BBC and ITV were deprived of the long-time excitement of watching the highest level of the national sport as it happens.
To William Shawcross, who had access to Murdoch for his 1992 biography, nobody should lose any sleep over this accumulation. Shawcross is particularly dismissive of the criticisms I made in the first edition of Good Times, Bad Times, about the conduct of Times Newspapers. "If Murdoch had been running a chemical company and Harold Evans had been a dismissed foreman, his complaints would never have gained such wide currency. Much of the criticism of him [Murdoch] by journalists and media experts has been repetitive and uninteresting." Students of the British class system, on show in the Shawcross lexicon, will be amused to note that I am put in my place as a foreman. It is never to be forgiven that a horny-handed son of toil somehow got to edit The Times. But there are other more important curiosities about this Murdochian statement. The whole point, as the journalist and author Robert Harris remarked in a review in the Independent, is that Murdoch is not running a chemical company, but seeking to become the most powerful disseminator of opinion and entertainment in the world, and a different standard of judgment must apply. Not one of Murdoch's five national newspapers, read by ten million, deviated from his anti-Labour party line in the British general election of 1992, a decisive feature of the bias in the British press whereby the Conservative party can count on 70% of the total circulation of national dailies.The second curiosity of the Shawcross-Murdoch defence is that he is at pains, here and throughout, to skip over the fundamental issue at Times Newspapers. A newspaper owner who imposes a political policy and fires a recalcitrant editor can invoke his right to do what he will with his property. At Times Newspapers Murdoch had unequivocally forsworn that right.
Parliament, the Thomson Organisation and the Times board would never otherwise have agreed to his purchase. It was the breach of all the guarantees he gave that made the case rather more interesting than Shawcross is willing to concede. How did Murdoch get away with it? How did he? It is an important question about Times Newspapers, but it is one to be asked of many of Murdoch's initiatives. Shawcross objects to the repetitious nature of journalists' complaints about Murdoch, but it never seems to dawn on him that the repetition is produced by a significant repetition in Murdoch's behaviour. He makes solemn promises, then breaks them when it suits him.
He pledges loyalty to people, then double-crosses them. He commits a wrong, but disguises his motives in a smoke trail of disinformation.
There are scores of instances on three continents, but one need only consider the case of William Collins Publishing, which in 1988 so closely followed the parallel at Times Newspapers in 1981-2. In 1981 he had failed in a hostile bid for Collins, but held on to a 19% shareholding that gave him 42% of the voting stock.
Hostile bidHe made a significant promise to Ian Chapman, the Collins chief executive and architect of its fortunes, in the presence of Lord Goodman, representing Murdoch, and of Sir Charles Troughton, deputy chairman of Collins. He swore he would never again make a hostile bid for the company. (He also said that he would not exercise his right to acquire in the market 2% a year of the stock and he didn't.). Collins flourished under Chapman. His good name and his recommendation of Murdoch were decisive in persuading the board of Harper & Row in New York to sell control to Murdoch in 1987. Chapman was rewarded the following year in exactly the same manner other Murdoch benefactors have been rewarded: he was betrayed and traduced. Murdoch broke his pledge of 1981. He made a hostile takeover bid, he suborned Chapman's deputy, and he denounced Chapman's management.
When Chapman and the board resisted, Murdoch charged, in an unpleasant offer document, that staff morale was low and the performance of the core business was bad – charges, as Chapman retorted, that had been manufactured for the bid. The Collins board finally capitulated when Murdoch raised his offer from £290m to £400m and gave the directors promises about the future editorial and management autonomy of Collins, London, and HarperCollins in the United States. These promises, too, were soon forgotten.
The global trail of recidivism was less distinct in 1981, when Murdoch sought to acquire control of the Times and Sunday Times, but I have come to regard the judgments I made then as the worst in my professional career. The first blunder was not to campaign against Murdoch, the second to be tempted from my power base at the Sunday Times where, with a world-class staff behind me, I would have been much harder to assail. My professional vanity was intrigued; I thought I could save the Times. In the event, I did not save anything. Two of the most important newspapers lost their cherished independence.
The anti-Labour bias of the press was given a further twist. A proprietor who had debauched the values of the tabloid press became the dominant figure in quality British journalism.
There was a critical opportunity, as I describe, to block Murdoch in 1981. At five to midnight the Sunday Times journalists chapel were on the verge of applying to the courts for a Writ of Mandamus to force the government into referring the take-overs to the Monopolies Commission; the Fair Trading Act provided that in principle all newspaper takeovers should be referred. If Murdoch had persisted, he would have had to testify publicly about his international dealings, his cross-ownership of media, and his record of promise-keeping. The Thomson Organisation would have had to defend its cooked-up presentation of the Sunday Times as a loss-maker. All the issues which have subsequently become key to the Murdoch question would have been brought into the daylight. The Sunday Times journalists voted down that initiative at the eleventh hour by more than a hundred votes, but the 14 dissenters of the so-called Gravediggers' Club felt the result might have been different if I had given a lead. As editor and chairman of the Sunday Times executive board. I was not a member of the chapel, but I believe they are right in their assessment. I did give the chapel every financial statement I possessed so that they could debate the issue in the crucial meeting and prepare evidence if they decided to go ahead with a Writ of Mandamus, but I did not try to persuade any of them to vote for it.
That was a mistake. Short of sitting in the stocks in Gray's Inn, I do not know what more I can do to acknowledge the error of my ways. I did not then know that the Thomson organisation had given the government a set of figures at variance with those presented to our Times Newspapers board meeting and at variance with the Warburg prospectus in their successful attempt to make the Sunday Times appear a loss-maker. Knowledge of that squalid stratagem might well have changed my attitude even at that late stage. The circumstances are set out in the following pages for the reader to judge. My decision was to resist Murdoch from within rather than challenge him in public. One of the leading Gravediggers, Magnus Linklater, later editor of the Scotsman (1998-1994), has written to say that in my position he would probably have taken the same actions. This is generous. It is, as Maitland remarked, hard for historians to remember that events now past were once in the future. The reasons for the decisions I took seemed good at the time: the determination of the Thomson organisation and especially Gordon Brunton and Denis Hamilton to sell only to Murdoch and to sell the Times and Sunday Times together; the mutual distaste for each other as a body of journalists on the Times and Sunday Times which militated against the Times's editor, William Rees-Mogg, and myself joining forces – as we should have done from the start; the unprecedented editorial guarantees we had secured from Murdoch; the risk of a second choice purchaser closing the Times: the Daily Mail, which bid £8m more than Murdoch, insisted on the freedom to do this. (John Grigg, in his 1993 The History of The Times, says Lord Rothermere confirmed this to him.)
None of these risks was as great as the risk we took with Murdoch. It was not that we trusted him. The outgoing board and both editors thought we had shackled him, locked him in a trunk in an inviolable castle tower, given one key to a group of honourable men and entrusted the other to the highest court in the land, parliament. But Murdoch is the Houdini of agreements. With one bound he was free. His machinations are almost Jacobean in their strategic cunning. How all this occurred and how it seemed at the time are worth describing in detail because it suggests the manner in which institutions are vulnerable when they rest on moral assumptions which a determined, clever man can exploit. My own abrupt and painful severance from the Times is the least of it, though revealing of his methods of defenestration. I was the 12th editor in nearly 200 years. Murdoch is on his 18th editor in thirty: the late Charles Douglas-Home was the 13th, Charles Wilson the 14th, Simon Jenkins the 15th, Peter Stothard the 16th, Robert Thomson the 17th and James Harding the 18th. It would be interesting to know how successive Times editors, with Rupert Murdoch hovering over them on the satellite, have worked out their responsibilities for the once cherished independence of the titles we had so carefully written into the Articles of Association. Andrew Neil at the Sunday Times is the only one who has written an account, in his book suitably titled Full Disclosure. (Robert Thomson 2002-2007 is in charge of Murdoch's the Wall Street Journal and Peter Stothard 1992-2002 of the Times Literary Supplement). I hope all the editors will one day share with us as I share my own experiences with readers of this book.
Organ of ThatcherismWhen I first told of the pressures I had resisted, which are described in this book, there was some disbelief. The stance of Murdoch, to judge from his interviews with William Shawcross and "private" briefings during his moves to buy the Wall Street Journal, were that these were fictions of my imagination. It is no pleasure to be vindicated by events. A corporate culture which regards truth as a convenience was bound to prefer a coverup to candor; in this respect the response to the hacking scandal was instinctive. And but for the Guardian's revelation about Milly Dowler it might just have worked as it had worked before given the ample supply of cash and the scarcity of political courage. I had not dreamed up the idea that my principal difficulty with Murdoch was my refusal to turn the paper into an organ of Thatcherism.
That is what the Times became in the 80s. I'd seen many things to praise, and did, but I believed that the independence of the Times required discrimination. No doubt Charles Douglas-Home was more in sympathy with Thatcherism than I was, but a succession of editors struck the identical note and, as Shawcross concedes, Murdoch's voice soon resonated in other editorial opinions designed to appease him. Shawcross mentions "constant sniping criticisms of such Murdoch bêtes noires as the BBC and the British television establishment in general". I had not dreamed up the row I had over insisting on the proper reporting of parliament. Under my successor, who had felt as keenly as I did, the famous parliamentary page and its team disappeared overnight. I had not dreamed up the way Murdoch, under pressure, would subordinate editorial independence to his other commercial interests, as he did when he secretly transferred the corporate ownership of the Times titles and then suggested I suppress the news in the Times itself. In the following decade extraneous commercial pressures became manifest, especially in the reporting of his ambitions for Sky Television and his takeover of Collins. The convictions supposedly animating the crude campaign against the BBC vanished the moment it agreed to a commercial partnership with Murdoch. I had not dreamed up the proprietor's determination to give orders to staff, in breach of the guarantees. It was by his direct instruction that Douglas-Home, soon after becoming editor, dismissed Adrian Hamilton as editor of the business news at the Times. I had not dreamed up the scandal of the eviction of his father, Sir Denis Hamilton, as chairman of Murdoch's national directors; on that gallant man's death, the Times obituary suppressed this entire period of his life. I had not dreamed up the threats to the reputation for accuracy and fairness. When Murdoch lied about the circulation of the Times in my editorship, the Times published the falsehood, and then Douglas-Home refused to publish my letter of response or any form of correction. The same lie was retailed to Shawcross. Douglas-Home suffered a tragically early death, but the truth is that he was the figleaf behind which Murdoch began the rape of the Times as an independent newspaper of unimpeachable integrity.
I am often asked my feelings about Murdoch today. My concerns are professional rather than personal. I have been happily engaged in the United States as an editor, publisher and historian, and when I came across Murdoch socially in New York I found I was without any residual emotional hostility. I share his romantic affection for newspapers. He is for his part agreeable and sometimes vividly amusing. I have to remind myself, as he wheels about the universe of "The Big Deal", that Lucifer is the most arresting character in Milton's Paradise Lost. There are many things to admire: his courage in taking on the unions at Wapping (though not his taste for Stalag Luft architecture), in challenging the big three television networks in the US with a fourth, and altogether in pitting his nerve and vision against timid conventional wisdom. If only these qualities could throughout have been been matched by an understanding of journalistic integrity, he would have been a towering figure indeed rather than, at the climax of his career, having to submit to a grilling by MPs on the most humble day of his life.
I am still in one respect in his debt. On my departure from the Times I became a non-person, and it proved a very happy experience. For years my birthday had been recorded in the Times, a matter I felt more and more to be an intrusion into private grief. After my resignation, my name was left out of the birthdays list. I then came to regard each passing year as not having happened since it had failed to be recorded in the paper of record, and I adjusted my stated age accordingly. More recently my name has been put back in the birthdays list, which is a pity. Perhaps this new edition of Good Times, Bad Times will generate another act of rejuvenation.
The author is editor-at-large at Thomson Reuters.
This is a full version, with changes, of the new preface to Sir Harold Evans's Good Times, Bad Times, published on Monday by Bedford Square Books as an ebook, £4.99 or paperback £13.99. An edited extract appears in Monday's Guardian.