Meet the London Times Masthead, Circa 1981

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.

Meet the London Times Masthead, Circa 1981