Rupert Murdoch wants to merge The Times and the Sunday Times – but the indie directors won’t let him

Blimey, ‘independent directors’ standing up to Rupert Murdoch.

These bods (not the same ones presumably) were first appointed in 1981 when Margaret Thatcher allowed owner of the Sun Rupert Murdoch to buy The Times and the Sunday Times. When, shortly afterwards, he moved distinguished Sunday Times editor Harold Evans to The Times and then fired him, they uttered nary a squeak. Or at any time since.

But, possibly emboldened by the bucket of ordure News Corporation finds itself in over phone hacking at the (defunct) News of the World and other misdemeanours (what seems like half the staff of the Sun is under arrest for allegedly paying coppers) thse worthies have put their foot down and vetoed the appointment of longstanding Sunday Times editor John Witherow (above) as editor of the The Times to succeed James Harding. Harding was invited to resign and agreed (it could be something to do with the horse’s head).

Apparently the ‘undertakings’ under which they serve expressly forbid the merger of The Times and the Sunday Times. Which is exactly what Rupert wants to do.

You can’t blame him really, both papers are losing buckets of money (The daily Times even bigger buckets).

BSkyB chief operating officer Mike Darcey (left) recently took over as CEO of News International, following in the distinguished footsteps of Rebekah Brooks. Darcey’s pals no doubt questioned his sanity at the time but maybe this, too, was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

So the hapless Darcey has been forced to make the following statement.

Following a meeting of the Independent National Directors of The Times and The Sunday Times yesterday we welcome their clear understanding of the very difficult financial position of our newspapers and therefore the need to address the Undertakings given in 1981. A thorough assessment of the undertakings will enable them to make recommendations to us and to government as to how the newspapers can be structured in order to reduce their costs and become economically viable.

However, during this interim period of continued consultation over the Undertakings, we still have a responsibility to provide these two newspapers and their journalists with strong and stable leadership. Given John Witherow’s distinguished record serving as editor of The Sunday Times over the last 18 years, we are putting him on leave from The Sunday Times and appointing him acting editor of The Times, effective immediately, and subject to formal approval as editor by the independent directors.

In other words, we’re up shit creek without a paddle so you’d better change the bloody rules. Another offer you…

I wonder what Martin Ivens makes of all this? There’s he’s been, plodding along loyally as Witherow’s deputy for God knows how many years (Witherow’s staying power as a Murdoch editor suggests supernatural abilities) and all he’s likely to get is a short spell as acting ST editor, assuming Murdoch succeeds in changing the rules and Witherow becomes editor of a merged paper. Maybe Ivens will get it, who knows?

But, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde on the demise of Little Nell, you would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.