Stephen Glover

The price war is over, and it is time to ask who won

The price war is over, and it is time to ask who won

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Last Saturday the Times raised its cover price to 90 pence, which is what the Daily Telegraph sells for on that day. On Monday it went up to 50 pence, pricing the paper at only 5 pence less than the Guardian and Telegraph. Thus ends the price war between quality newspapers which began ten years ago almost to the day, on 6 September 1993.

At that time Rupert Murdoch did something that most people thought was mad. He reduced the price of the Times from 45 pence to 30 pence. The general view was that buyers of quality papers did not care overmuch about the price they paid. Writing in the London Evening Standard, where this column then resided, I doubted that the price cut would lead to an increase in sales. How wrong I was. Within little more than a year, the circulation of the Times had risen from about 360,000 to 500,000, and was still going up. By November 1996 the paper was selling 860,000 copies a day. It did not seem that it would be long before it reached one million.

At that time I was writing a column for the Daily Telegraph, and I do not think I am revealing any state secrets by recalling that the widespread view on the paper in those days was that the Times would soon be breathing down the Telegraph’s neck. Murdoch had famously told Sir David English that he envisaged a Britain where the only national newspapers were the Sun and the Times (both owned by him) and the Daily Mail (of which Sir David was then editor-in-chief). If it seemed a piece of megalomania on Murdoch’s part to imagine a world without the Daily Telegraph, for a time it did not seem fanciful to imagine that the Times would end up by being the highest-selling broadsheet.

The Telegraph’s management was stunned by the price war, and for a time resisted the temptation to reduce the paper’s cover price. But it began to haemorrhage sales, and in June 1994 its price was cut from 48 pence to 30 pence. The Times responded by slashing its own price the next day to 20 pence. The effect of these changes was that the Daily Telegraph stabilised its circulation – indeed, it added a few copies, climbing back to over one million sales a day – while the Times continued to forge ahead. The high point for the Times came in the autumn of 1996. Although the Telegraph has lost sales since that time, the Times has lost more. Last month the Telegraph’s official circulation, including some so-called bulk copies, was 929,060 copies a day, while the Times’s figure, which includes rather more bulk copies, was 629,815. Murdoch’s dream of overtaking the Telegraph now seems an impossibility.

The price war ended because even Murdoch could not afford to sell copies of the Times at a discount for ever. As he gradually increased the cover price of the Times over the past few years, thereby narrowing the differential with the Daily Telegraph, so the sales of his paper slowly began to sag. The truth is that it could not compete with the Telegraph on circulation when the price gap grew smaller. Murdoch also found himself fighting for sales in a quality market that has been contracting. The collapse in advertising revenues – at least 20 per cent down since 1991 – was the last straw, and has forced Murdoch to call a halt to a war he started.

Wars have winners and losers – and survivors. This one had many participants. Of the Daily Telegraph, I would say that it has survived, and a bit more. It has lost some circulation, and, by being constrained to cut its price, gave up millions of pounds of revenue. (Remember that in September 1993 it was selling at 48 pence. Ten years later it has managed only to advance to 55 pence.) A much more obvious casualty is the Independent, which in 1993 was selling almost as many copies as the Times. Now its official circulation is about 220,000, though its true sale at full price is nearer 160,000. It is said to be losing about £10 million a year. Murdoch wanted to kill it off, and almost succeeded. But it is still there.

The two winners of the price war are the Daily Mail (which, although classified as being in a different market, has more readers in the AB socio-economic categories than any other daily paper) and the Guardian. The Mail responded to the price war by investing in its journalism, which it could afford to do. Its sales have risen by about a third since September 1993. The Guardian has more or less maintained its circulation, a considerable achievement. Its largely left-of-centre readership was less tempted by Rupert Murdoch’s wares, and proved more loyal than the readership of the Independent.

And what of the Times itself? Has it won or lost? It did not achieve Mr Murdoch’s aim of overtaking the Telegraph. It has spent tens of millions of pounds. On the other hand, it has greatly increased its circulation. If it can retain those new readers at a cover price that is similar to that of its rivals, it will be able to claim victory. I am sure that it would have had to spend much more to gain as many readers through conventional marketing. The Times has won in a sense, but it has paid a price. In order to retain readers who were first attracted by its lower cover price, it has had permanently to change aspects of itself. In other words, it has had to dumb down. Unless it is prepared to jettison those new readers, it will have to remain in its present state, a curious combination of the high and low, a paper which is striving to satisfy readers with divergent tastes. Never again will the Times be ‘the top people’s paper’ with a reputation for uniform quality. That for me counts as a kind of defeat.

The Telegraph Group no doubt has its deficiencies like any other publisher, but it does have the virtue of pluralism. Since The Spectator itself is part of this group, I myself have been a beneficiary in writing this column. A striking example of this open-mindedness has been the coverage of the Lord Lucan lookalike in the Sunday and Daily Telegraph.

It was the Sunday Telegraph that first published a photograph of Barry Halpin, a so-called ‘beach bum’ who died in Goa, and suggested that he may have been Lord Lucan. Strictly speaking, the suggestion came from a new book, an excerpt of which was published by the Sunday Telegraph. The story was followed up by Monday’s papers. But on Tuesday the news came that Barry Halpin was almost certainly not Lord Lucan but, well, Barry Halpin, a well-known drinker and (in the words of a former acquaintance) ‘goodtime Charlie’ with very few, if any, aristocratic connections.

The Guardian made much of the Sunday Telegraph’s apparent error, and ran a story on its front page. But the Daily Telegraph was scarcely less forthcoming, covering the top half of page three with an article and pictures that together established beyond all reasonable doubt that Barry Halpin was not Lord Lucan. No mention was made of its sister paper’s role in airing a theory that has been so promptly debunked, but the Daily Telegraph’s presentation of the story was a moving testimony to the pluralism I have mentioned.