Former Times news editor: Murdoch has breached independence undertakings with anti-UKIP coverage

Peter Evans was a journalist on The Times for 30 years with jobs including UK news editor, leader writer and head of the investigative news team. He said he is not affiliated to any particular political party

Undertakings made formally by Rupert Murdoch when he took over The Times to maintain its independence as a newspaper of record have been regularly broken, I conclude from a survey of its coverage.

Rupert Murdoch with his national newspaper editors and Rebekah Brooks entertained David Cameron at a Christmas party on 21 December 2015. He was facing a revolt over Europe and threat to his leadership, with cabinet ministers letting it be known they could resign if silenced. A favourable opinion was commissioned for The Times on 31 December and a pro-Cameron news story appeared prominently on 1 January.

I also report a campaign of damaging stories in 2014 against UKIP led by senior Tories on The Times in the run-up to the European and last general elections when UKIP was seen as a threat to their party.

Murdoch's promises in 1981 were an alternative to referral to the Monopolies Commission. They are:

“In particular Murdoch subscribes to and undertakes to observe the following principles relating to editorial integrity.

“The Times and The Sunday Times are free from party political bias and from attachment to any sectional interest. They will be subject to no restraint or inhibition either in expressing opinion or in reporting news that might directly or indirectly conflict with the commercial interests or political concerns of the proprietor. The Times is reckoned to be a newspaper of record.”

This undertaking is incorporated in articles of association and was deposited with the Trade Secretary.

But the following appointments suggest there is an attachment to “a sectional political interest” at The Times, namely the Conservative Party:

  • Daniel Finkelstein, former executive editor of The Times, and afterwards associate editor. He was also chief leader writer and is a regular political columnist. A Tory peer and former director of the Conservative Research Department, he was political adviser to the leader of the opposition, William Hague, and to prime minister John Major, and was associated with George Osborne as secretary to the shadow cabinet. He is friendly with Osborne and Cameron
  • Matthew Parris, former Tory MP, now Times columnist with close connections to the party

  • Hugo Rifkind, son of former Tory Cabinet minister, and regular columnist

  • Alice Thomson, friend of Cameron and a columnist, is the wife of Tory insider Edward Heathcoat-Amory who is the nephew of former Tory MP David Heathcoat-Amory

  • Tim Montgomerie, columnist and former comment editor of The Times, created the ConservativeHome website, which he edited from 2005 until he joined The Times in 2013. The Observer said: "In the eyes of most MPs, Montgomerie [is] one of the most influential Tories outside the cabinet" (12 February 2012).

A detailed analysis of 38 articles published in 2014, in news and comment, suggests a sustained Tory attack against UKIP and Nigel Farage, challenging Murdoch's promise that The Times is free from party political bias. For example:

Hugo Rifkind says of UKIP (14 December, 2014): “I am starting to worry less about it being evil and more about it just being…..rubbish. Hapless.”

Matthew Parris says of UKIP (4 October, 2014): “Their party and its pitch are mad, bad and dangerous”. He urges: “Say so.” A headline, not in quotes or attributed, states: "Nigel's fruit cakes are back in their tin".

Rachel Sylvester writes (21 May, 2014): “Nigel Farage….is rarely photographed without a pint in his hand and can hardly open his mouth without making a gaffe. This former public schoolboy, who rails against the Westminster elite, is guilty of extraordinary hypocrisy as he seeks to exploit the MPs' expenses scandal while draining bottles of Château Margaux in Michelin starred restaurants at taxpayers' expense. Yet this weekend UKIP swept to  victory in the European poll.” She gives no times and places where he drank as she alleges, and produces no evidence that it was at taxpayers' expense.

Sathnam Sanghera interviewed UKIP MEP Amjad Bashir ( 27 September, 2014), who moved to Yorkshire at the age of  eight, son of a mill worker, and “unable to speak a word of  English”, but went to grammar school and university, though dropped out into business. Sanghera says that Bashir's “telling  mispronunciations”, “contorted Anglo-Asian syntax” “and an inability to pronounce the letter 'v', feels, frankly, quite comical”.

A spoof memo by Daniel Finkelstein to Nigel Farage (2 April, 2014) is headed: “A few tips on dealing with personality clashes and internal divisions – but on the really big issues I fear you're beyond help.”

The European elections were on 22 May, 2014. After the campaign during the year against UKIP in The Times and facing a complaint by me about infringements of Murdoch's undertakings, it did an about face and made Nigel Farage “Briton of the Year”.

The Guardian reported on 22 December, 2015: “David Cameron was joined by George Osborne at Rupert Murdoch’s Christmas house party on Monday night, an event where half the Conservative cabinet went to toast the media magnate.”

Anthony Seldon wrote in a column on 31 December, a quiet news day: “David Cameron heads into the new year with an optimism about his place in history he would never in his wildest dreams have imagined before the May general election.”

A story on 1 January, another quiet day, said a poll by The Times revealed that voters wanted Cameron to remain in Downing Street until 2020. The headline called the wish a “demand”.

Later the story says: "A State of the Nation YouGov poll for The Times indicates today that 55 per cent of Tory voters want him to delay his departure until just before the 2020 election at the earliest."

It thus turned out to be the majority opinion of only Tory voters, not a demand by “voters” in general. Cameron was facing a potential revolt by ministers over Europe and a split party, with his future as leader in question. Post Leveson, with forthcoming state inspired regulation of complaints against the press and a threat to Freedom of Infomation provisions,  Murdoch needed Cameron as much as Cameron needed timely support.

Murdoch saved The Times. But for what purpose and at what cost?

Picture: Reuters

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