News International is understood to have taken legal advice about merging The Times and Sunday Times into a seven-day operation.
The Times reports the development today in a report which says farewell to an evidently popular editor of the paper over pages one, four and five.
Among those to pay tribute to him was chairman of the Commons public accounts committee Margarent Hodge, who said: “James Harding has turned The Times into a fantastic campaigning paper on the issues that matter to people. That’s what the tax avoidance investigation was all about.”
The exact reasons for Harding’s departure remain uncertain, but in a highly unusual move the editor made clear in his exit statement that the proprietor wanted him to go. He said: “It has been made clear to me that News Corp would like to appoint a new editor of The Times.”
The Times (£) reports that Harding was told at the beginning of last week that proprietor Rupert Murdoch wanted a new editor and so he offered his resignation yesterday. He leaves the paper at the end of the year.
Under the terms of Murdoch’s purchase of The Times and Sunday Times in 1981, editors can only be “appointed or removed only by the agreement of the majority of the independent directors”.
The Times reports today that News Corp has taken legal advice on whether it can alter undertakings made in 1981 to merge The Times and Sunday Times editorial operations.
Such a move could page the way for long-serving Sunday Times editor John Witherow to take up an editor-in-chief role across both titles.
BBC business editor Robert Peston, who has previously shown himself to have excellent sources within News Corp, said yesterday on Twitter: “I hear John Witherow will move from Sunday Times to replace him.”
The Telegraph reports: “John Witherow is expected to assume control of The Times newspaper. However, his appointment must first be approved by News International's independent directors.”
And even Wikipedia has updated John Witherow's page to say: "John Witherow (born 20 January 1952, Johannesburg, South Africa) is a journalist, who is the editor of The Sunday Times, but is expected to become editor of The Times at the beginning of 2013.”
Harding’s departure comes ahead of seismic changes which are afoot at News Corp as the newspaper and publishing divisions are hived off from the film and TV entertainment wing.
Times deputy editor Keith Blackmore, who will be interim actor, was said to be close to tears when he addressed the newsroom yesterday saying that Harding was a great editor “perhaps the greatest we have ever had”.
Among Times journalists paying tribute to Harding on Twitter was columnist Giles Coren who said: “I am gutted about @hardingthehack, the best editor I have ever worked for. The Times has fucked itself in the arse. Merry fucking Christmas.”
Reporter Fay Schlesinger said: "James Harding's departure is a massive loss for us. Office quietest I've ever known it."
Colleague Alexi Mostrous tweeted: "Alexi Mostrous: Newsroom shocked into silence by James Harding's resignation. He was a fantastic editor."
Reporter Patrick Kidd said: "Feel immensely saddened by James Harding's enforced resignation, like when [former England cricket captain] Andrew Strauss went. Universally admired, a real positive force."
Times Investigations editor Dominic Kennedy said: "Dismay at The Times as our brave, principled editor @hardingthehack announces his resignation. He saved our reputation when it was in peril."
James Harding is the fourth Times Editor under whom I've written for the paper. What has been so tremendously encouraging and confidence-building about his editorship to Times writers like me has been to have an Editor so fresh and open-minded in his daily approach to the news; so full of enthusiasm for what his reporters and columnists were attempting; and so brimming with ideas for what more we might attempt. Never jaded, never cynical, never demoralising, always optimistic and full of belief in what we were all doing.. It should not be assumed that every editor tears open his newspaper every morning, engaged with everything it's saying and discovering, and racking his and his colleagues' brains for proposals for doing it better. It should not be assumed that with every Fleet Street editor the remark that 'this might sell newspapers but it would be beneath a paper like ours to do it' could clinch the argument but with James it always would. James Harding has been an inspirational, an energising and a moral force for us. I don't know where else to say this so I'll say it here.