On 22 October I went to hear the Lord Communications Committee take evidence on media plurality from Sir Harold Evans, former editor of the Times and Sunday Times. He was followed by representatives from the Media Reform Coalition and the internet campaigning organisation, Avaaz.As the notice of the hearing pointed out, ‘Sir Harold Evans has a long and distinguished career in journalism. In particular as then editor of the Sunday Times, he was personally involved in approving the undertakings made in relation to the Times and Sunday Times at the time of their sales in 1981 …’
When Evans became editor of the Sunday Times in 1967, it was owned by the Thomson group, a Canadian company which had acquired the daily title the previous year. The organisation attempted, with Evans’s eager support, to introduce the modern working practices he had seen across the Atlantic. The resulting conflict with the unions caused both titles to suspend publication in November 1978.
‘A temporary break,’ Evans recalls in an interview with Robert Chalmers in the Independent (13 June 2010), ‘as we all thought.’ (The papers would be off the newsstands for a year.) ‘I led a management buyout bid for the Sunday Times, but Thomson’s thought Rupert Murdoch had a better chance of dealing with the unions,‘ Evans said.
As a condition of acquiring both the Times and the Sunday Times in early 1981, Murdoch promised that the independence of each would be protected by a board of directors, and made other solemn guarantees.
‘On this basis,’ Evans wrote in ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ (first published in 1983), ‘I accepted Rupert Murdoch’s invitation to edit the Times on February 17 1981.
‘My ambition,’ he admitted, ‘got the better of my judgement.’
Every assurance regarding editorial independence, he added, was disregarded. On 9 March 1982, the day after he’d come back from burying his father at Bluebell Wood cemetery in Prestatyn, Harold Evans was sacked.
‘Ultimately,’ he says, ‘Mrs Thatcher was the reason I was fired. Because I was attacking her so much. When she started to dismantle the British economy, the most cogent critic of that policy which led, OK, to … a lot of things … was the Sunday Times. I wrote 70 per cent of that criticism myself. When I became editor of the Times, I continued to criticise monetarism. But I could still see some of the good things about her …’
At the hearing, he was asked about the differences in media diversity between the USA and Britain.
Evans explained how in US, the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of the press, giving it a great advantage over the situation in Britain, with its the legal restrictions imposed by the laws around contempt, confidence and defamation.
However, he reminded us that, like US society, the media there had become more polarised. Evans believed that since 1981 (when Murdoch bought the Times and Sunday Times) diversity had been greatly diminished. The greater concentration of media ownership brought about by Murdoch’s purchase of these titles ‘enabled politicians to be blackmailed more easily.’
Discussing web news sites, he felt that they did not have the financial resources to carry out the deep-rooted investigative journalism which was required, although many of them were excellent sites. In the UK, the news agenda was dictated by the national press.
On Leveson, he thought that the judge had done a good job on many things, but was weak on media concentration. Given the experiences in 1981, he should have called for greater transparency and no ‘back room deals’ on future media takeovers.
Meredith Alexander, (Avaaz) and Professor Des Freedman and Dr Justin Schlosberg from the Media Reform coalition advocated something more just transparency.
Their proposals for media plurality reform, although distinct, included common elements such as a 20 per cent cap on the permissible share of any one commercial entity in designated media markets, such a newspapers, radio and television.
A similar policy was advocated by Doctor Jonathan Hardy, national secretary of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, when he appeared before the committee earlier in the summer.
Whether or not the committee will recommend any such caps is still unclear, but their interest in the cases put forward was clear: the meeting overran by nearly half an hour.
Their report is expected in the New Year, perhaps coinciding with that from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, whose public consultation on media plurality closed on 22 October.
That is when the political campaigning will begin.
For a full viewing of the Lords Communication Committee hearing go to: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=14019