Hacked Off and the Media Reform Coalition have written to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Wright QC, to insist that he takes off the table any possibility of weakening the protections on editorial independence at The Times and The Sunday Times newspapers. The text of the letter is set out in full below.
News UK, which owns The Times and The Sunday Times newspaper titles, had applied to amend the conditions placed on their ownership of the titles when they were transferred in 1981. The proposed change would allow the two titles to share staff and resources. Every published response to the consultation indicated that the application should be rejected.
But on 11th April 2019, the Secretary of State announced that he was minded to accept the application. Furthermore, he added that he would seek changes to other, unspecified, conditions.
Many of the other conditions were put in place to protect editorial independence at the titles.
The Hacked Off Campaign and the Media Reform Coalition have today written to the Secretary of State seeking assurances that in any changes to other conditions, the protections on editorial independence will not be weakened.
Hacked Off Policy Manager Nathan Sparkes said,
“In his Statement giving his intention to accept News UK’s application, not only has the Secretary of State rejected the views of every published response to his own consultation, but he has thrown up the possibility of amendments to other conditions on News UK’s ownership of the Times titles.
“Editorial independence has been repeatedly called into question at The Times and The Sunday Times, as set out in Hacked Off’s response to the consultation. Any changes to other conditions must protect and strengthen the existing protections on editorial independence.
“We urge the Secretary of State to publicly confirm that he will not countenance any weakening of these protections, as he seeks further changes to the 1981 conditions.”
Professor Natalie Fenton, Chair of the Media Reform Coalition, added:
“A succession of governments have bent over backwards to satisfy the interests of the Murdoch media empire and it is disappointing to see history repeat itself yet again. This Government is refusing to listen to any of the published consultation responses, which all urged News UK’s application to be rejected – including the National Union of Journalists and an anonymous journalist working at one of the Times titles.
“The Government should publicly rule out any further changes to the undertakings which would weaken the protections on editorial independence.”
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Text of the letter:
Dear Secretary of State,
We are writing as organisations which made submissions to your Department’s consultation on News UK’s application to vary the undertakings attached to the 1981 transfer of The Times and The Sunday Times newspapers.
We disagree with the substantive conclusions you set out in your Written Statement on 11th April 2019; in particular, that you are minded to accept News UK’s application. We will consider making further submissions on those points during the next consultation.
But we have a more urgent and specific concern in relation to this passage in your Written Statement:
“However, in considering the proposed new undertakings as a whole, I have noted that the existing governance arrangements – agreed in 1981 – lack clarity and certainty over roles and responsibilities. Before agreeing the application I am therefore of the view that these arrangements need to be suitably updated and enhanced to better reflect current corporate best practice.
I have asked DCMS officials to discuss these issues with News UK and to consider new proposals from News UK to update the proposed undertakings to address my concerns. I will update the House in due course on these discussions.”
While we do not object to updating the requirements on governance arrangements in principle, some of the governance arrangements agreed to in 1981 were designed to protect editorial independence at The Times and The Sunday Times newspapers.
We would be grateful if you could confirm that the updates sought by DCMS officials will not have any weakening effect on the protections on editorial independence.
We look forward to your response.
The Media Reform Coalition