What Murdoch's rescue of 'Thunderer' means to Britain

It is a low-ceilinged, windowless room, the floor covered in dull mustard-colored felt squares, the desks strikingly bare of the electronic keyboards and video screens many European and US papers now take for granted. Here and there a typewriter clacks.

the scene is a somber symbol of some of the deep-seated woes that trouble the United Kingdom today: It reflects outmoded machines, outworn procedures, a failure to adapt readily and willingly to change. Restrictive union practices mean no electronic equipment, and presses downstairs manned by four times as many men as are actually needed. Fears and resentments come from long economic decline, sustained losses, and the lingering resentments and frictions of the class system.

This is the heart of one of Britain's most famous institutions, the newsroom of "the Thunderer," The Times, voice of the British establishment since 1785, now sunk deep in financial ruin (last year's loss was L13.8 million [$32.4 million], bringing accumulated losses in the last 14 years to L70 million, or about $164 million).

The paper has passed out of British hands, and its future lies with an aggresive, risk- taking publisher (Rupert Murdoch) from a former British colony (Australia). Colonial owning "The Times" -- a few years ago the very idea would have been unthinkable.

But this is an age in which many another famed British name has fallen from a once- high pedestal, victim to unyielding unions, poor management, and national economic crisis.

Huge nationalized industries pile up enormous losses. The maker of Jaguar, MG, and Rover cars (BL) depends on British government handouts (the latest: L990 million [$2.327 billion] for the two years). British Rail, heir to the tradition that gave railroads to the world, loses money hand over fist, raises fares, cuts services.

It reports a mere 20 percent of its lines electrified -- behind 16 other countries and ahead of only Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Portugal.

On a lesser scale, the publishers of Winston Churchill, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, Hugh Walpole, Nicholas Monserrat, and others has gone out of business: Cassell's of London. It will continue with education books but can no longer afford to publish a general list.

And the makers of toys known to generations of children around the world -- Meccano, and Dinky model cars and trucks -- has gone bankrupt. The company, Airfix Industries, was swamped by a failure to innovate, a flood of electronic toys, and the high exchange rate for sterling which make its exports uncompetitive.

So, in days like today, with government figures showing 6,876 businesses failing in England and Wales last year (an average of 573 a month, up from 255 a month in 1972) any rescuer of an institution like The Times is welcome here -- even if he is a colonial.

"Rupert has a better reputation here than he does in the US or Australia," remarks one senior Times man over lunch. "There are problems ahead, of course, but he has energy and vigor and drive, and he is a good businessman. He isn't silly enough to take The Times down-market."

This was a reference to the heart of Mr. Murdoch's business empire: the sex-and- scandal sheets he publishes here (News of the World, and The Sun) and in the US (The Star). His strategy has been to take over an ailing paper and build its circulation by appealing to the lowest tastes of a mass readership -- gossip, trivia, sexual titillation.

Yet many inside The Times seem not to be concerned. They admit that the decision to let him bid for the five Times titles (daily Times, Sunday Times, and three educational supplements) was based on his business skills and financial backing, and an overwhelming desire to save the papers after a decade of strikes and losses.

"If we can't maintain our independence from now on, we don't deserve to," commented one Times man as we wandered through the Times building on Gray's Inn Road the other day.

"On the other hand, I suppose it's true to say that his guarantees to us of editorial independence depend largely on the new editor he appoints."

The Times editor for the past 14 years, William Rees-Mogg, had decided to retire even before Thompson Newspapers decided to sell. Mr. Murdoch has given a series of assurances on independence. The power of ratifying a new editor will go to a board of independent directors.

Mr. Murdoch gave some clues to his plans for The Times on BBC-TV Feb. 16. He wanted a "younger audience" and he wanted the paper to speak with "more authority." He intended to set "marketing strategy" himself, and it would be up to the new editor, when chosen, to "work out the tactics." Mr. Murdoch attacked "left-wing" journalists and what he called "elitism" in the New York journalistic world. "I don't think the people who read The Times are better than those who read the Sun," he said. "They are just different. I am not an elitist myself."

Insiders also note that under the law of the land, Mr. Murdoch can still contradict national directors and editors, provided he is prepared for the storm of criticism that could erupt within the papers themselves. His style is to dictate editorial policies of all his newspapers.

his much-touted arrangement with the unions, which allowed him to announce purchase fir a mere L12 million ($28.2 million) down, at the same time put the brakes on residual union opposition. Only 7 out of 618 machine assistants in the print shop are to lose their jobs, only 46 out of 500 distributors, only 20 out of 800 clerical workers. Journalists will still not have video terminals. The Times is not out of trouble yet.

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