Update 10 February 2022:
The Culture Secretary has formally released News UK from its legal undertakings to keep The Times and The Sunday Times separate.
Nadine Dorries received no objections after announcing in November she was “minded to” allow the restrictions to end.
However, according to The Guardian, Times and Sunday Times editor John Witherow and Emma Tucker sent an email to staff on Thursday which said: “Times and Sunday Times editorial independence continues and is enshrined in the editors’ contracts. The Times and The Sunday Times remain as separate newspapers and there are no plans to merge the titles.”
Original story 26 November 2021:
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is preparing to allow News UK to end legal restrictions guaranteeing the editorial independence of the Times and Sunday Times.
She said she was “minded to” grant News UK’s application after hearing it would make a “significant” impact on the publisher’s finances and make little change to plurality in the UK media market.
Dorries told Parliament that News UK’s legal undertakings are “no longer appropriate or necessary for the purpose they were intended to achieve”.
The legal requirements, which were designed to protect media plurality when Rupert Murdoch bought the Times titles in 1981 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.
News UK asked the Government to remove the legal conditions, saying they were now “outdated” given the media industry is now “unrecognisable” from 40 years ago.
Then-Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright previously allowed the Times and Sunday Times to share more journalistic resources in 2019, the first change to the conditions since 1981. Sport, sport production, travel, property, money and features production teams are now shared.
Dorries heard from Ofcom, which said the changes “would create the opportunity for greater proprietorial influence over the titles, which could affect free expression and accuracy of news”.
However Ofcom decided “on balance” that this would be “unlikely to operate against the public interest”.
Ofcom also felt the changes would not significantly affect the “reasonably plural” UK news market – even if the Times titles were to merge.
As summarised by the DCMS, Ofcom said: “Even in the event of a merger of the titles in question, readers would still have access to a wide range of viewpoints and any diminution of editorial voice due to further integration between the titles was unlikely because Ofcom considers that both titles position themselves on the centre right of UK politics.”
In addition, Ofcom said the “separation principle is less relevant now (and will be even less relevant in the future) than it was when the sole method of consumption was via print” as the identities of the Times titles are already more diluted online.
Ofcom added that if releasing the legal undertakings improved the long-term viability of the business, it would have a positive effect on plurality in the market in the long term.
Dorries also heard from the Competition and Markets Authority, which concluded that scrapping the undertakings would have a “significantly positive impact” on News UK’s financial position and its ability to adapt as the media market evolves.
The competition watchdog noted that News UK was unable to share resources across the Times and Sunday Times in a “fully-unified structure”.
News UK had argued it was not on a “level playing field” with other national news publishers that can run a seven-day operation across their titles.
Dorries said she was “minded to” accept the changes as she agreed there had been a “material change of circumstances” in the news industry both since 2019 and 1981, that “the impact on media plurality of releasing the undertakings is likely to be limited and that, on balance, releasing the undertakings was unlikely to operate against the public interest needs for free expression of opinion and accuracy of news”.
A consultation on her decision is now open until 16 December.
Times editor John Witherow and Sunday Times editor Emma Tucker (pictured) both wrote to the DCMS in favour of the changes, saying they were reassured by News UK’s assurances that it planned to add provisions in their contracts to guarantee their editorial independence.
In the place of the six legally-required independent directors, News UK also proposed to set up an independent committee of at least three members to monitor and mediate any disputes about independence.
Pictures: Press Gazette and News UK