News UK has asked the Government to scrap legal requirements guaranteeing the editorial independence of The Times and Sunday Times.
Rupert Murdoch-owned News UK argued the legal conditions, implemented when Murdoch bought the titles in 1981, are now “outdated” given the media industry is now “unrecognisable” from 40 years ago.
It added it is not working on a “level playing field” with other publishers, many of which have moved to a seven-day operation.
But it pledged to introduce assurances into the contracts of its editors that they would retain editorial independence.
News UK insisted it would be “economically irrational” for Murdoch to attempt to “restrain or inhibit” the editorial position of the titles as this would be “likely to result in a sharp decline in circulation numbers, subscribers to the digital editions and both print and online advertising revenues, at a time when all of these metrics are already under significant long and short-term pressure”.
It also argued the Government could have no credible plurality concerns after allowing Daily Mail and Metro owner to buy the i and for Reach to buy the Express and Star titles in recent years.
The request comes after then-Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright allowed the Times and Sunday Times to share more journalistic resources in 2019, the first change to the conditions since 1981.
Journalist teams are now shared in the sport, sport production, travel, property, money and features production departments. And in recent months there have been a number of editorial redundancies as a result of the mergers.
News UK said it now wants to further integrate the Times and Sunday Times feature desks across seven days and merge editorial services across areas including pictures, graphics, subbing and production.
The legal requirements, designed to protect media plurality when Murdoch bought the Times titles as he already owned The Sun and the News of the World, state the newspapers must be kept separate and editorially independent under the supervision of six independent directors.
The application was supported by letters from Times editor John Witherow and Sunday Times editor Emma Tucker (pictured) who said they were reassured by assurances from News UK that it planned to add provisions in their contracts to guarantee their editorial independence.
The publisher also proposed to set up an independent committee of at least three members, likely initially comprised of some of the existing independent directors, to monitor and mediate any disputes about independence.
Witherow called the current requirements an “archaic hangover from a pre-digital era when there was arguably a need for pluralism of content because of a limited number of publications”.
He said it “seems an anachronism” for the Government to have a role in a free press.
Tucker said: “Crucially, all our future growth lies in the success of our digital products which can only succeed and make sense to readers when delivered as a seven-day offering.”
News UK said the cost savings of getting rid of the independent directors would alone provide sufficient justification for the move but that this was secondary to its desire to eradicate the constraint placed on its ability to make operational changes.
The independent directors agreed the legal undertakings are no longer necessary.
In today’s digital-first world the separation of titles is “fast becoming an artifice and impedes necessary innovation at both titles, which is required to ensure their viability”, News UK said in its application to the Government.
“The undertakings have become a barrier to innovation and change,” it said.
Under the backdrop of the challenges to the industry brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, including hits to advertising and circulation revenues, News UK said: “In these unprecedented times, when the demand for trusted news sources has become increasingly important, it is imperative that News UK is not disadvantaged relative to other newspaper publishers and has the same operational flexibility to respond quickly to rapidly changing and unpredictable market conditions.”
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has asked for comments on the proposal and will consult further before deciding whether or not to release or vary the conditions.
Pictures: Press Gazette and News UK