Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Does Murdoch junior want The Times to toe the party line?

Left Foot Forward reports some interesting internal rumblings at News International over the extent to which Rupert Murdoch's newspapers should be cheerleading for David Cameron.

Next Left this morning revealed that the The Times had spiked a news report on Baroness Warsi's bizarre attack on the idea of having more Muslims in Parliament. The newspaper was to report that this would have provided "severe embarrassment to the party leadership".

No explanation has been given as to why the story was spiked. Yet a News International Executive puts this in a broader context, telling Left Foot Forward that Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch have been pressurising Times editor James Harding over the newspaper's political direction:

James Harding [The Times' editor] – having been widely blamed by Murdoch for failing to land the expenses story - has been weakened and less able to resist pressure from Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch over the political direction of the paper.”

Next Left is certain that the Left Foot Forward report is solidly and credibly sourced. Following their earlier assault on The Independent editor's office, this may fuel internal concerns at News International that Brooks and Murdoch's rampaging political interventions in this election campaign are not just ethically questionable, but that, even from a Tory partisan perspective, they seem to have lacked a certain subtlety, on which greater effectiveness may ultimately depend.

More seriously, many media observers will think there is a significant difference between Murdoch (junior) and Brooks trying to determine that The Times' news reporting does not undermine the pro-Cameron "party line" of the News International group, compared to their pursuing the unabashed partisan cheerleading of The Sun.

Indeed, Rupert Murdoch gave assurances back in 1981 when purchasing The Times and Sunday Times that he would respect the newspaper's editorial independence. So is James Murdoch in the camp that states that such assurances are never worth the paper they are written on?

All of the tabloids - the Sun and the Mirror, the Mail and the Express - have news coverage heavily influenced by their partisan leanings. It was surprising that Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn would say so explicitly "“It is my job to see that Cameron fucking well gets into Downing Street", but nobody at all is genuinely surprised at that description of what the job is fundamentally about in an election campaign.

That The Times should be treated differently has been absolutely central to its editorial and commercial success.

The credibility and influence of each of the broadsheets depends on vigorous reporting of news stories whatever the political fallout. (One thinks of The Telegraph pursuing Tory duckhouses as well as Lab or Lib miscreants; The Observer breaking lobbygate, and so on).

They depend on giving commentators free rein too. So few readers of The Times would ever think that commentators like Matthew Parris and Daniel Finkelstein - both conservative in their personal political beliefs - would hold back in expressing frank or critical views for fear of the editor or propreitor. That is why they are read for enjoyment and insight. I think it perfectly credible that the paper's endorsement of the Tories was made on its merits, while individual leader writers like Oliver Kamm continue to support Labour personally.

So any attempt to turn The Times into a partisan propaganda sheet would surely face much resistance inside the newspaper.

Yet, in the heat of the crucial final days of a highly uncertain election, the tale of today's spiked news report raises genuine concerns that crucial battles over the newspaper's ability to report without fear or favour can, damagingly, be lost as well as won.

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