Thomson Newspapers -- owners of The London Times and Sunday Times, and committed to cease publishing both papers in March -- have been faced with awkward choices by bidders wishing to take over the titles.
The Thomson group, forced to sell the two famous papers together with their associated supplements, has received half a dozen bids, all unsatisfactory in one way or another. It may take some weeks before a decision is made whether or not to accept any of them.
When Thomson decided last year that falling income and incessant trade union problems made it impossible to continue producing the papers, it laid down stiff criteria for potential buyers to meet.
Bidders had to have enough money to sustain serious publication ater a change of ownership. And their reputation had to be high enough to preserve the credibility of The Times and Sunday Times, both highly respected newspapers.
Bids received by the Dec. 31 deadline are believed to have come from Lonrho, a mining and manufacturing company with extensive African interests; Australian newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch; Sir James Goldsmith, the Anglo- French business tycoon and magazine publisher; Robert Maxwell, a book publisher; The Economist weekly news- magazine; and a consortium of Times journalists headed by a former chairman of the BBC, Sir Michael Swann, and the president editor of the Times, William Rees-Mogg.
In some ways the bid by Lonrhoi chairman "Tiny" rowland seems the most impressive. Mr. Rowland already owns a Scottish daily, the Glasgow Herald. But he has taken the paper firmly down-market and his business activities have long been controversial.
Mr. Murdoch is successful, too, but in Britain he is mainly associated in the public mind with the publication of the Sun, by far the most popular daily newspaper in Fleet Street. His operations in his native Australia and in New York have also opened him to accusations of being a blatant popularizer.
Sir James Goldsmith publishes L'Express and Figaro in Paris and Now magazine in London. He has large financial interests in the British food industry.
His politics are right wing, and he has been criticized for using his papers as a mouthpiece for his own views.
Mr. Maxwell, an emigre Briton, is chairman of the Pergamon Press and has a reputation of intervening vigorously in the affairs of his publishing enterprises.
The Economist's bid excludes The Times and Sunday Times and covers only the three supplements -- Time Literary, Times educational, and Times Higher Educational.
The journalists' consortium is bidding only for The Times itself.
In deciding to sell the two distinguished newspapers, the Thomson board felt that it must set high standards when calling for bids. The price it is asking has not been disclosed, but is rumored to be high.
Thomson has appointed a three-man board to review the bidders. It consists of the Thomson Newspapers' editor in chief, Sir Denis Hamilton; Times editor Rees-Mogg; and Sunday Times editor Harold Evans.
Mr. Rowland, a tall, assertive business operator, was once described by former British Premier Edward Heath as representing the "unacceptable face of capitalism." The tag has stuck.
The Times consortium has City of London backing, but its wish to own only one newspaper in the group handicaps it.
Maxwell's chances are rated slim, partly because he has a doubtful reputation in Fleet Street and has alienated members of the reviewing commitee by comments he has made about Times newspapers under their present ownership.
Notable for their absence are bids from Atlantic Richfield, the American oil company that owns the Sunday Observer, and Associated Newspapers, publishers of the London Daily Mail.
It is thought that both groups may have decided to hang back and assess the competition before putting in bids of their own. But if they are to show their hands, they must do so soon or run the risk of seeing publication of the Times and its stablemates end completely.