If the play is the thing to test the conscience of the King, then the Emperor of Wapping is in for a tough time. The Times and the Sunday Times in the UK are now in the News Corp Bad Bank, and Wall Street very understandably says that “something must be done” about the continuing losses at Times Newspapers. My friend and colleague, Ken Doctor, clear leader in the critical analysis of newspaper prospects in the US, is an optimist. He sees growing revenues from online advertising and digital subscriptions slowly filling the gap and eventually pulling a reconstructed press out of the mire. Mr Murdoch should surely read him attentively as one of the few hopeful auguries on the market, but it is hard to apply Ken’s logic, which may work for major US regionals, at The Times. There the only medicine that anyone seems to imagine will work is more cuts to the scarred and bleeding body of the Old Thunderer. The three act drama we have been watching for the past few months has now reached Act 2 , but based on the form of the playwright, I am privileged to offer you a peek at the final act (and leave it to you to decide whether this is comedy or tragedy – or farce).

Act 1 opened on a dark heath, at night. Six shadowy figures, half witches, half warlocks, stirred a pot, uttering incantations, as their leader dipped his pen into the broth and used it as ink. “Yes”, said Rupert Pennant Rea, for it is he “this evidence to Leveson will ensure that we six independent National Directors of Times Newspapers will never be overlooked again. Here we remind the noble Lord that we were created in 1981 as trustees in the public interest, independently appointed and self-appointing: no editor can be appointed or fired without our agreement .” Exeunt All, and then we find ourselves in the Imperial Court, where His Majesty, Digger II, sits restlessly on the Imperial Chair, reading a profit and loss account. “By the Guns of Gallipoli and my father’s scoops”, he shouts “I will abolish red ink with red blood. Send for Harding of the Times and Witherow of the Sunday Times and make them Accountable!” As the supplicant editors are dragged into the presence, each man is asked what he will sacrifice to make red ink black. One voice pleads for more independence, an end to new print plants in Essex. The other, more experienced player insinuates the thought that it would be cheaper to run the two newspapers together, to have one newsroom, one accounts department, one sales and marketing presence – and one editor. “You have it!, cries the Emperor, “that is exactly what I would have said , and now I come to think of it, it is exactly what I did say. Since I cannot recall if one of you said it, lets assume it was me. But we certainly don’t want bright young things around here like you, Harding, so you are fired. Meanwhile, loyal and long-serving Witherow, you shall be our chief of editors of all our newspapers. Let the cuts commence…!”

Act 2 brings us back to the Heath, as Rupert P-R briefs his colleagues. “How can this have happened! The Emperor knows that we have rights of approval. Put out a press release showing that Witherow is only acting until we have considered carefully whether this man who we have known and worked with as the editor of one of our newspapers for a decade is suitable to edit the other. But we must be honoured in the breach, or Wapping Wood shall never come to Dun-Insane!”. And then the scene changes, and we open a new one as the Emperor screams “Only acting! Who do they think they are. That agreement I made with Ken Thomson is over thirty years old. Send runners to the people we helped into office to run this accursed country, and ask for a Private member’s Bill to abolish this arrangement. I must be free!”

Of course, I have made all this up and shockingly put words into everyone’s mouths, and I must ask the forgiveness of the innocent when I have traduced them. But, is this really any way to make newspapers pay? If they cannot be run at a profit, why have them at all? Over at DMGT they clearly have no doubts about selling the whole of Northcliffe into Local Worlds. While I do not want to argue that the Times is more important than the Leicester Mercury, I do want to suggest that the way to cure their ills is to re-focus on the behaviour of the customer. David Montgomery, Chairman of Local Worlds, was quoted today in the Telegraph as saying that he would “stop the trend of cost cutting for the sake of cost-cutting”, despite claiming to be “leaving the industrial baggage of print behind”. This too seems to me not to answer the question of how people with networked access will want to be drip fed news and update locally, regionally or nationally.

And so, Act 3. The runners return to the Emperor, saying that the government politely declined. “After the phone hacking scandal, and the allegations of business closeness between the erstwhile CEO of News International and the Prime Minister, this may be an inopportune moment to be seen to be helping the Chairman get out of agreements that he willingly got into.” So the Emperor decides just to go on acting, and refusing to appoint or approve new national directors just as they refuse to approve his editors until the whole cast list approaches retirement or a more final exit – and then they stop arguing for a moment and turn round and find that – the Times has ceased to exist in print. One of those plays then that started as a comedy, became a farce in Act 2, yet turned eventually to tragedy.


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