Rupert Murdoch has asked the government to abolish the legal restraints on him interfering in the editorial independence of the Times and the Sunday Times that were put in place when he first bought the newspapers.
At the moment the two newspapers are required to have largely separate editorial teams, while Murdoch nominally has to answer to a group of independent directors on key editorial matters.
News UK has now asked the government to abolish the independent directors, arguing that they are no longer required and were designed in a pre-internet era.
The company argues that there is no need for the legal protections because it would be “economically irrational” for Murdoch to interfere in the editorial position of the Times or the Sunday Times, as this could cause sales of his newspapers to fall.
Abolishing the legal undertakings would also pave the way for a full-blown merger between the Times and the Sunday Times, with staff on almost all non-news parts of the outlets working across both titles. News UK argues that this is required for financial reasons because of the long-term decline of print newspapers.
The undertakings were put in place in 1981 by Margaret Thatcher’s government as part of a compromise deal to allow Murdoch to buy the two papers without needing approval from monopoly regulators. The decision allowed him to dominate both the high end of the British newspaper market and the tabloid sector with the Sun and the now defunct News of the World.
Murdoch has often got his way in clashes with the independent directors. When he appointed new editors of the Times and the Sunday Times in 2013 the independent directors initially refused to back the decision. Murdoch simply announced his new hires as “temporary acting editors” until an agreement was reached.
The current independent directors at the Times have backed the proposal to abolish their existing positions. Instead, they will become part of a new committee within News UK that will help mediate any disputes between editors and the owners. A rapid consultation is now under way, with the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, making the final decision.