HC Deb 01 March 1982 vol 19 cc7-8
7. Mr. Norman Atkinson

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will publish his reply to the letter from the National Union of Journalists' chapel at The Sunday Times relating to the infringement of editorial independence.

Mr. Biffen

I have placed a copy of this correspondence in the Library of the House. It is for the independent national directors to consider allegations that editorial independence has been infringed.

Mr. Atkinson

In regard to the company articles and the likes, does the Secretary of State agree that Rupert Murdoch attempted to find a way round the original agreements, but was caught? If the right hon. Gentleman had his time again, would he not design the articles quite differently, and would he have taken different action in referring the matter to the commission?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) has tabled question No. 22 about the titles, and I hope to reach and answer it. The answer to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question is "No". The answer to the third part is that I do not think that I would depart from my judgment.

Mr. Aitken

Does my right hon. Friend accept that an element of make-believe surrounds the so-called guarantees of editorial independence? In practical terms, they are now unenforceable. Might it not be much more realistic for my right hon. Friend to accept that Times Newspapers Ltd. has a proprietor who, from time to time, may decide to fire an editor pour encourager les autres, and that there is nothing that the Government can do about it?

Mr. Biffen

I do not agree that there is an element of make-believe in the articles. I understand that the question refers to the dismissal not of an editor, but of journalists. If the editor thought that his independence had been infringed, he could have appealed to the independent national directors.

Mr. John Smith

Reverting to the episode to which my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) referred, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Mr. Rupert Murdoch failed to act within the spirit of the agreement when he attempted to transfer the titles without any reference to the independent national directors? What decision, if any, has been made about the future of the titles? In the light of recent experience, are not further safeguards necessary?

Mr. Biffen

I do not wish to be in any way obstructive, but I owe it as a courtesy to the hon. Member for Battersea, South—who has tabled a question specifically on the transfer of titles—to deal with the matter later.

Mr. Squire

Given the importance that all hon. Members attach to editorial independence, will my right hon. Friend speculate on the degree of independence enjoyed by other newspapers, such as Militant?

Mr. Biffen

Not just now.

Mr. Winnick

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that events seem to justify some of the fears that were expressed when Mr. Rupert Murdoch took over Times Newspapers Ltd? If The Times is closed, what approach will the Government take towards ensuring that it reappears in the near future?

Mr. Biffen

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's first observation. Clearly both sides of the House would like The Times to continue as a major journalistic force. However, it must do so on an economic basis.