Nadine Dorries has removed all legal barriers on Rupert Murdoch interfering in the editorial independence of the Times and the Sunday Times, ending restrictions that have been in place since he bought the newspapers in 1981.
The decision by the culture secretary also clears the way for a potential merger of the two titles, which are currently required to have largely separate editorial teams.
Ofcom had warned that lifting the restrictions “would create the opportunity for greater proprietorial influence over the titles, which could affect free expression of opinion and accuracy of news”.
However, the media regulator also largely accepted the case that there is little incentive for Murdoch to interfere in editorial matters, because if that became public it would undermine the trust of the Times’s readers and cost Murdoch money.
Their owner, News UK, had said the logical conclusion of this argument is that, if there are limited incentives for Murdoch to interfere, then the rule stopping him from interfering should be abolished.
When News UK asked the government to lift the rules, the media business argued that they were outdated in the modern media era and forced the newspapers to absorb more costs than their rivals.
John Witherow and Emma Tucker, editors of the Times and Sunday Times, wrote to the government in support of removing the legal restrictions, saying the changes would make it easier to run a seven-day operation.
Despite this, they sent a joint email to staff on Thursday insisting the titles were remaining distinct at the moment.
They 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.”
The announcement comes amid speculation within the Times over who could succeed Witherow as editor of the weekday outlet if he chooses to leave after a decade in the job. Both Tucker and deputy editor Tony Gallagher are tipped for the role.
The restrictions 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.
Since then, the Times and Sunday Times had been legally required to keep largely separate editorial teams. Murdoch also nominally had to answer to a group of independent directors on key editorial matters.
In reality, Murdoch was often able to sidestep the restrictions. He appointed new editors of the Times and the Sunday Times in 2013, and the independent directors initially refused to back the decision. Murdoch simply announced his new hires as “temporary acting editors” until an agreement was reached.
Jim Waterson is the Guardian's media editor. Twitter @jimwaterson