In early 1981, shortly before Rupert Murdoch completed his purchase of London’s prominent money-loser, The Times (and its profitab le Sunday Times), there was panic in the newsroom.
The budding media mogul jotted something down on the proof of an editorial about the impending purchase, written by Sunday Times editor Harry Evans: In a list of Fleet Street newspapers Mr. Evans had reeled off, he careted in “The Star.”
A minor tweak. But the actual putting of pencil to paper riled the masthead.
“Here’s a man that doesn’t even own the paper, and promised that he’s going to provide editorial independence, and has put a mark on the paper,” said Don Berry, who witnessed the event.
Mr. Berry, a former news managing editor of The Sunday Times, was speaking by phone from London on June 18, recounting the incident which later entered the “lore of Fleet Street,” according to Mr. Evans’ own 1983 memoir, Good Times, Bad Times.
Mr. Murdoch, according to Mr. Berry, “approached The Times in the way he is approaching The Wall Street Journal: all these promises about editorial independence.”
And right now, it’s that murky notion of “editorial independence” that’s being tossed back and forth between Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp. and the Bancroft family, as Mr. Murdoch pursues his bid to buy Wall Street Journal owners Dow Jones.
On June 15, it was reported that the Bancroft family rejected their lawyers’ four-page proposal that was to be sent to News Corp., because it was not strong enough on editorial independence.[*] Obtained by the Los Angeles Times a day later, it detailed specific criteria: “[The] Family is only willing to pursue negotiations of a transaction if and when the Family is satisfied that a structure can be developed and implemented that ensures the level of commitment to editorial independence and integrity and journalistic freedom …. ”
As the Los Angeles Times summed it up: “If guarantees of independence and integrity were traded on an open market, Murdoch’s word would be valued somewhere south of Albanian treasury notes.”
So in a quarter century, do only the analogies change?
“I knew that Murdoch issued promises as prudently as the Weimar Republic issued Marks,” Mr. Evans wrote 24 years ago. That quote is from page 1 of Good Times, Bad Times, before another 400 pages describe a catalog of Mr. Murdoch’s sins in painstaking detail.
But these days, while Tina Brown—a.k.a. Mrs. Harry Evans—has been making the rounds reminiscing about another major 1981 event, the wedding of Charles and Diana, her husband has kept mum on the subject of Mr. Murdoch’s takeover.
And although Mr. Evans has continually referred reporters back to his book, several of his former colleagues, contacted by The Observer, were willing to venture deep into their institutional memories and discuss the good and bad times under Mr. Murdoch.
Michael Leapman, author of the demurely titled Arrogant Aussie: The Rupert Murdoch Story, was The Times’ New York correspondent in 1981, and left the following year.
“Obviously, the bid to safeguard the editorial independence of The Times was always doomed to failure,” Mr. Leapman said.
Before the sale, Times editor William Rees-Mogg had assigned Mr. Leapman to investigate the influence Mr. Murdoch had on the editorial content of his newspapers—apparently, not much changes in a couple of decades.
Mr. Murdoch’s control is not so much in donning shirtsleeves and overseeing every editorial, Mr. Leapman remembered finding, but in appointing the right people.
“The only reason he made Harry editor of The Times, was to get Harry out of The Sunday Times,” said Mr. Leapman. “He was the queen bee over this small empire. Murdoch would have found it very hard to penetrate the paper [otherwise].”
“He appoints editors who share his worldview and then gets on with it,” said Mr. Leapman. “He’s obviously not going to appoint a raving socialist to run The Times or The Wall Street Journal.”
While Mr. Leapman does not classify himself as a “raving socialist,” he does believe his politics made life difficult for him at the paper under Mr. Murdoch.
He had been part of a left-wing journalist collective—hey, it was the 60’s!—and said that Mr. Murdoch “had been told of my radical past.”
Not surprisingly, despite working in New York—where Mr. Murdoch was living, and where he had had the running of the New York Post for five years—he was accorded little face time in his investigation.
Meanwhile, back in London:
“I was there all through Harry’s regime,” said Richard Davy, who was chief foreign leader (editorial) writer during those good/bad times.
Mr. Davy had worked at The Times since 1955, and said that Mr. Evans’s 13-month tenure wasn’t rocky simply because of the new owner. The editor, according to Mr. Davy, “was used to the rhythm of a weekly paper,” and “caused a lot of chaos, spending too much money.”
But Mr. Davy said his resignation in 1984 was because he “didn’t like what was happening,”—and that had to do with Mr. Murdoch.
“My feeling, and most of our feelings, was very much that [Mr. Murdoch] wanted The Times to take certain lines editorially,” said Mr. Davy.
In March 1982, Mr. Evans was replaced by his deputy, the conservative Charles Douglas-Home. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Davy took a sabbatical in Washington, D.C., and returned to a very different environment.
“We were told that we should have no criticism of Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan,” said Mr. Davy.
Mr. Davy said that he “always assumed this was because [Mr. Murdoch] wanted access to Downing Street and the White House,” rather than being motivated by deep political leanings.
“With Charlie, he was able to find someone to toe the line,” said Mr. Davy, who characterized Mr. Douglas-Home as having “little experience in foreign affairs [and being] easily moved.”
“In his first week, then-editor Harold Evans brought Rupert down to the foreign department, and introduced him to me and other staff in the foreign room,” said Cal McCrystal, former foreign features editor of The Sunday Times. “I think there was a certain amount of trepidation because his reputation was not all that desirable.”
Mr. McCrystal had been at the paper since 1964—and stayed another eight years after the buyout. But he said that after the purchase there was a “disconsolate mood [and] a more superficial standard of journalism.” Although he admitted that spending was excessive under the previous owners, the Thomson family, “in the end, the product that went on the streets was awfully good.”
There was also a less reckless, scoop-crazed atmosphere, according to Mr. McCrystal, and fewer of the old-fashioned perks of the gentlemanly trades: “Drinking at lunchtime was banned,” he said.
The nerve, Rup!
“Even if Rupert Murdoch volunteers his arms and his legs, his name—and the organizations with which he has been associated, and the damaging influence they have had on American and British society—should be enough” not to make a deal, said Mr. McCrystal.
“I think that they should link up with the Financial Times, with Pearson,” said Mr. McCrystal, discussing a recent development in the seven-week saga. He cited the Financial Times’ “independence,” “fine writing and fearlessness.”
But should Mr. Murdoch, who may wish to appoint like-minded staff, be held to standards unlike any newspaper proprietor?
Mr. Berry said that the notion of an owner appointing staff that share viewpoints is “nothing surprising in most of journalism.”
However: “There was supposed to be a special arrangement” with the Times deal, “and it was rather naïve of us to believe you could have such a special arrangement—especially with Rupert Murdoch.”
“He can, and will, meet editorial independence much of the time, because he doesn’t interfere on a day-to-day basis,” said Lord Bernard Donoughue, who was an assistant editor at The Times in 1981-82. “But, he interferes when it matters to him. That’s why he got rid of Harry and me. He knew we wouldn’t necessarily do what we were told. But there are always people that are happy to.”
“The lesson for the people at The Journal,” he added, “is that all those with ambitions and no principles may have a more prosperous future under Murdoch.”
Lord Donoughue said that his only interaction with News Corp. since was through his position in the House of Lords, in 1996. Then, he helped defeat a bill that would have relegated several major sporting events to subscription networks, such as Mr. Murdoch’s British Sky Broadcasting.
“A representative complained to me, ‘You just cost Rupert $50 million,’” Mr. Donoughue recalled. “It would have been a lot cheaper for him to pay my contractual redundancy.”
“My recommendation to the Bancrofts is to tell Murdoch to get lost, if they believe in anything they say about their traditions,” said Bruce Page, who worked at The Times a few years prior to the takeover, and later penned The Murdoch Archipelago, a rather unfriendly biography. “They can’t make a bad journalist good.”
“When you talk about journalistic independence, it doesn’t mean anything to him,” said Mr. Page. “This guy wouldn’t be a journalist except by accident of birth.”
Mr. Page likened today’s coverage of the Dow Jones saga, and talk of Mr. Murdoch changing his stripes, to when he covered the 1968 Presidential election.
Back then, he asked a veteran newspaper editor about the media buzz about the “new Nixon”—a more statesmen-like nominee, far removed from McCarthy and Checkers. “Son,” Mr. Page recalled the editors telling him, “there is no new Nixon. What there is, is the old Nixon, a little older.”
“Rupert’s a little older,” Mr. Page said, “but there’s no new Rupert.”
—additional reporting by Julia Heming
* An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported this fact.