To read the mind of Rupert Murdoch is difficult and not necessarily pleasant — difficult because he is cleverer than almost any other publisher who has ever lived, and not necessarily pleasant because he is nearly always planning to do someone down. But students of the man generally agree that the only thing that drives him is circulation. It is all that matters. There is no point in having a low-circulation quality newspaper if it can be turned into a higher-circulation title of less quality. That is why he slashed the cover price of the Times in 1993, which more than doubled the sales of the paper and accelerated its dumbing-down. And it is why the Times adopted the tabloid format more than a year ago, a change which has also increased circulation, if much less spectacularly. In both cases he upset received wisdom, which held that buyers of quality newspapers did not care overmuch about price, and that established Times readers would desert the paper in droves if it went tabloid.
One other point about Mr Murdoch on which most students also agree is that he does not stand still for very long. He will be pleased that the tabloid Times has increased sales by 5 or 6 per cent. The objections of old Times readers about the new format, and their cries of outrage at the further dumbing-down, will not worry him a bit. But he may be disappointed that the tabloid Times has not done rather better than it has, and he will be looking around for new ideas to boost its circulation. There is really only one thing he could do. Start another cover-price war.
The last war was successful for the Times, though very expensive. When it began the paper was selling barely more than 350,000 copies a day. At the height of hostilities sales rose to some 880,000, before falling back as Mr Murdoch slowly raised the cover price to a level closer to that of his rivals. The war nearly killed off the Independent, which at the outset had been selling almost as many copies as the Times, and wounded the Daily Telegraph. The Guardian, though, was almost unaffected, and the Daily Mail actually put on sales. Most observers concluded that having got the Times’s cover price back to within an inch of its competitors, while holding on to most of its circulation gains, Mr Murdoch had exhausted the strategy, and would not embark on another round of price-cutting. One or two people are now taking a different view.
I am not saying that Murdoch will cut the Times’s cover price, and I certainly hope that he does not, but having observed him over the years I think it a possibility. This is the dreadful truth: though the Times is losing money — the exact figures are difficult to disinter; let’s settle for £10 or £15 million a year — Mr Murdoch could easily afford to reignite a cover-price war because of the vast resources of the international media group News Corp, which he and his family control. No other British newspaper group, not even the mighty Daily Mail, could afford to start a long and gruelling price war. But Mr Murdoch would be able to do so because he could easily cross-subsidise the Times’s increased losses. In a properly regulated market he would not be allowed to, but this government, which is in thrall to Mr Murdoch, is not going to make things difficult for him. If he wants to start a new price war at the cost of £50 million, he can do so at the stroke of a pen.
If he decides on such a course of action, the Independent will not be in his sights this time. He might aim to deflate the Guardian’s relaunch in its new format, but that paper barely features on his radar either. He will certainly hope to turn up the heat on the Daily Telegraph. And this time, far more than in 1993, he would be looking enviously at the Daily Mail, which sells almost four times as many copies as the Times. For all its obvious deficiencies, the dumbed-down tabloid Times has been taking a few copies from the Mail. The main purpose of a new cover-price war would be to trawl those waters more assiduously.
Whatever happens, it is clear that the Times has given up any residual aspirations it may have had of being an upmarket newspaper. Last week it was announced that Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the paper and one of its four or five star columnists, is jumping ship to the Guardian. Mr Jenkins was looked after by Mr Murdoch very well, and he would not have left his old paper without a wrench. But he must have been dismayed by the inexorable dumbing-down; in the tabloid Times his own column, in common with those of colleagues, has been hacked back from some 1,400 words to about 1,050, and accorded less prominence. Mr Jenkins’s critics might think this no bad thing, but he can hardly be blamed for seeing things differently. As the man who can justly be described as the establishment’s favourite columnist, he is seemingly attracted by the notion, which I discussed recently here, that the Guardian may be repositioning itself to become the new paper of the establishment. Whether this is true or not, it is surely clear, as Rupert Murdoch considers new ways of boosting circulation, that he has very nearly killed off the old Times.
Several columnists were greatly exercised by Labour’s supposedly anti-Semitic posters. I got pretty worked up just sitting at my breakfast table. Yet on reflection I wonder whether we objectors did not overdo it. It is laughable to suggest that those flying pigs, to which the heads of Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin were affixed, were somehow anti-Semitic. The poster of Mr Howard swinging a watch on a chain is less easy to dismiss. In some minds it may have vaguely evoked Fagin. But even if there were an imputation of anti-Semitism, I doubt whether this would have galvanised the anti-Semitic vote, if there is one.
The Tories nonetheless went ballistic, which was politically astute of them. They know that the charge of anti-Semitism is always taken seriously, not least in the liberal media, where Mr Howard has few friends. The truth is that Mr Howard has turned out to be a bit of a liability, not because he is Jewish, but because he carries some bulky political baggage, besides being bald, quite old and speaking rather oddly. New Labour understands all this very well, and intended to put Mr Howard at the centre of its attacks on the Tories. But by flourishing the anti-Semitic card so readily, the Tories have frightened Labour strategists. If they can make Mr Howard a no-go area, so to speak, into which Labour is wary of straying for fear for being called anti-Semitic, they will have succeeded in neutralising a potentially contentious issue. From which I conclude that the Tories may not be so stupid after all.
Over the past two weeks both the Times and the Independent on Sunday have stated that Hugh Cudlipp was editor of the Daily Mirror. Let’s get this straight. For all his great contribution to the paper, Hugh Cudlipp never was editor of the Daily Mirror.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 5, 2005