11 JULY 1987, Page 17


The press: Paul Johnson

greets the sale of Today with a welcome — and a warning

RUPERT Murdoch's purchase of Today has certainly shown there's no monopoly of humbug anyway. Nothing is more amusing than the national press in a bogus fit of moral indignation. let there be no doubt,' fumed the Independent, 'Lord Young was stitched up.' Stitched up — really! Is that the kind of expression Mr Andreas Whittam-Smith ought to use in his chaste, not to say stuffy, journal?

'Is Mr Murdoch,' raged John Junor in the Sunday Express, 'being given Today as his reward for having supported Mrs Thatcher during the election?' Can Old Mortality honestly expect us to believe such rubbish? In the first place Tiny Rowland was not giving the paper to anybody. Most people would regard £38 million as a stiff price for the privilege of losing up to £600,000 a week. And in the second, Mrs Thatcher is about the last person on earth Tiny is likely to oblige, since he has been pursuing her and her family with one of the most vicious cam- paigns in modern British journalism.

The Daily Telegraph had the honesty to admit the truth: 'Most national newspap- ers, including ourselves, have reason to fear the impact of Mr Murdoch's formid- able powers upon Today's performance in the marketplace. Some of the most anguished and least worthy howls of pro- test about the Government's decision have come from those who have most to lose by it.' Nonetheless, the Telegraph, like all the rest, thought Lord Young should have referred the matter to the Monopolies Commission. Well they would, wouldn't they? There is nothing newspapers like to see more than for one of their competitors to be placed in limbo for three months, while a committee of the great and the good, accompanied by swarms of Whitehall bureaucrats, crawl over its crumbling fortunes, its good journalists leave and its readers are up for grabs. The non-Murdoch papers are cross about the Government's decision not to intervene partly, as the Telegraph said, from fear, but also because their cannibalistic in- stincts have been frustrated. Far from being concerned about monopoly, they all wanted Today to go bust.

The truth is that the press provision of the 1973 Fair Trade Act is unworkable. It is a typical piece of Ted Heath legislation: in the words of Kingsley Amis, a pseudo- solution to a non-problem. The genuine problem of the national press was, and to a great extent still is, not a monopoly of ownership but a monopoly of labour, practised by the closed-shop unions. Heath's 1971 Industrial Relations Act did nothing about it. Even the mighty Inland Revenue were forced to bow to the power of the print unions in those dark days of the Seventies. Now the labour monopolies in the newspaper industry are being eroded, first by Mrs Thatcher's three anti-union bills, and second by the courage of Eddy Shah and Murdoch in tackling the unions head-on.

What makes the other groups so fright- ened about the Today purchase is that they have not themselves displayed a similar courage. Though all are now, in the wake Of Wapping, moving shop and embracing new technology, not one of them has dared to do so without agreement with the old unions, so that they will be tranSplanting to the new sites many of the most destructive Fleet Street habits, including the closed Shop itself and union control of entry. That leaves Murdoch and his papers with a telling competitive advantage. It will of course be enhanced by his acquisition of the Today plant, where union labour is equally on tap rather than on top. The other groups are afraid of Murdoch not as a monopolist, as they claim, but as an enemy of the real monopolists.

The row also reveals the political naivety of certain newspaper editors. Did they honestly expect Lord Young, of all people, to invoke Whitehall interference in a pure- ly commercial matter in order to put at risk 500 jobs? Have they not yet grasped the point that this government believes in a market economy? The moral arguments, in so far as they have any bearing, are entirely on the side of the transfer. For it removes Today from the control of a man who is, in my view, quite unfit to own national newspapers, and places it in the hands of a genuine newspaperman who, whatever his faults, has never used his media power to boost his commercial interests. Murdoch does not believe in monopoly but in a free-for-all. He is a market democrat who thinks newspapers should reflect the tastes not of civil servants or MPs or the Press Council or lecturers in media studies but of the people who are actually prepared to buy them. I agree with him. So, I am glad to see, does the Government.

Whether Murdoch's purchase of Today will turn out to be a smart move is quite another matter. The high-tech colour presses are something he needs but making a success of Today will be difficult and expensive. Murdoch has a better touch at saving chronic invalids than any other newspaper doctor. But you can easily become over-confident in the print trade. I remember Denis Hamilton, who had had an enormous triumph at the Sunday Times, telling me that, by applying similar techni- ques to the Times, which Roy Thomson had just bought, 'we will be generating profits within six months'. In the event, the Times came close to jeopardising the entire Thomson empire. Murdoch now has an even bigger empire, and it looks over- extended to me, not so much financially as in terms of talent and his own atten- tion. The middle range in the daily news- paper market is a quicksand, or rather a greedy sponge which soaks up money. Lord Rothermere has poured scores of millions into the Mail on Sunday and it still needs more, even with the help of the best colour mag in Britain. Murdoch's first moves at Today, which are carrying it rapidly downmarket, seem to me to betray a confusion of purpose — characteristic of an empire grown too big to direct coherently.