London — Hands clasped on his lap, hair falling across his forehead, gray suit worn over a battered blue cardigan, William Rees-Mogg views Britain through the eyes of an establishment insider.
In an interview granted just before he retired after 14 years as editor of The Times, the tall and scholarly figure was outspoken in his comments:
* Fleet Street, newly dominated by business tycoons, is entering a turbulent era of cutthroat competition. Newspapers will be "more hyped up, less reflective, less thoughtful. In US terms, they will be less the New York Times (which is ruled by the intellect) and more like the Washington Post (ruled by emotion)."
* Tycoon owners can, as many here fear, threaten editorial independence by telling editors what to write and what not to criticize (i.e., the owners' own business interests). But today's threat comes more from the controversial global industrialist who now owns the Sunday Observer, Roland (Tiny) Rowland, than from the new publisher of The Times, Australian Rupert Murdoch.
* Trade unions still have a "stranglehold" on Fleet Street. They act "more out of greed than of fear." Operators of outmoded linotype machines now earn up to L500 ($1,100) a week.
* Economic decline and low mmorale in Britain are part of a wider, similar pattern in Western Europe and the United States: "Societies are failing to motivate their people. We have lost the feeling that societies have a fundamental sense of order."
* Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher will be a one-term leader: She is "sacrificing" her career to the need to reduce inflation. She is unpopular: "and in two years President Reagan will be unpopular as well. If he's not, he won't have got control of inflation."
Mr. Rees-Mogg, who retired March 6, looks back on 14 often difficult years of steering the paper through union strife -- and ahead to an era he views with a certain lack of sympathy.
He was devoted to (and appointed by) the late Roy Thompson, whose family lost more than L70 million ($168 million) on The Times and its assoiated publications in the last decade. He had decided to step down before the Thompson group accepted Mr. Murdoch's bid.
He sees Fleet Street still ruled by its unions. Now the tycoons have emerged after the previous era of more moderate men had lost out to the unions time after time.
Mr. Murdoch owns about 30 percent of the British natonal press: The Times, The Sunday Times, the Sun, and the News of the World. Mr. Rowland bought the Observer, Britain's oldest Sunday paper, from Atlantic-Richfield of the US. He may launch a new national evening paper soon.
Britain had nine national papers, but room for only six, Mr. Rees-Moog believes.
"We are back to the world of the total competitor," he said in the low, green and brown office he was about to leave. "Adrenalin will flow. Emotion will be high. . . . You can't change it. . . . The issue is whether the new proprietors can handle the unions.
"Mr. Murdoch did moderately well [in winning concessions from print unions before taking over The Times]. He got the [Times] supplements out of [this] building, which will be very valuable to him. [They are to be printed elsewhere.] Some electronic equipment will be allowed, but even then the unions won't allow journalists to use it.
"You could say Mr. Murdoch scored about 65 out of 100. . . . He made least progress in the pressroom, a very tough area. . . .
"Do I regret the new era? Well, it's not the way I would do things. . . . The clearest sign of excellence in a newspaper is the fearlesss to write about things that are boring, but important.
"The Times will shift perceptibly but not dramatically to a high-adrenalin paper, and the process may be good for it. . . .
"Mr. Murdoch really only owns one Australian airlines besides newspapers and television. How often is the London Times going to compare two Australian airliners? . . .
"But Mr. Rowland (head of the Lonrho financial empire) is very different. He is close to black African leaders. . . . If the Observer started to attack those leaders, it would be very embarrassing for Rowland, and the person writing the stories would know all about it. . . . Black African politics are deeply corrupt. . . . (The Observer's coverage of Africa in the last decade is widely considered here to have been better than all other British papers.)
Asked why the union hold on Fleet Street was unbroken, Mr. Rees-Moog spoke from long first- hand experience.
"Because they control distribution, they can stop papers leaving your building and getting to the train, and being unloaded from the train to the agent or wholesaler at the other end. Train staff strike sympathy. You can fight the unions in individual province and win. But if you fight them nationally, you lose. . . . I was prepared to hire our own trucks at one point, but I was advised we would need to duplicate the entire national distribution system. There were too many obstacles. . . .
"Besides, there's overmanning -- three to four times the number of men required in North american pressrooms. . . . On the Financial Times here, linotype operators earn L500 ($1,200) a week on machines only one-fifth as efficient as electronic typesetting. So The Times is paying them the equivalent of $350,000 a year to do the same work a North american pressroom worker does electronically."
Mr. Rees-Mogg dismissed breakfast television -- coming to Britain's soon -- and "cornflake TV: It isn't going to add to the quality of the nation. It's pretty worthless."
Looking at Britain's social and economic crisis, he said he was depressed by it: "Britain has gone soft and inward looking." But he put it in context with what he saw as a similar decline in the state of European civilization -- "in which I also include the USRR and the US as offshoots."
A noted Roman Catholic, Mr. Rees-Mogg said, "We have lost a sense of vocation in society -- and here I am talking about religious aspects. This is very acute in West Germany.
"There, people's inner emptiness is clear. In Britain, people think if the economy would just go right, all would be well. But in West Germany it has gone right, and all isn't well.
"Yet you can still live in London in a spirit of neighborliness and comfort, feeling you are in an intelligent city that still works. Compare it to Moscow, which is what Marxism has produced, and Los Angeles, which is what scientific materialism has produced: neither are tolerable cities.And only New Yorkers are sufficiently courageous to live in New York these days."