Asharq Al Awsat interviews Robert Thomson, editor of the British newspaper The Times since 2002. Thomson, an Australian journalist talks to Asharq Al Awsat about the political inclination of paper, his position at the newspaper, Rupert Murdoch and the switch from broadsheet to compact size.
Q) Like most British newspapers, The Times seems to have a certain political position. From your perspective, would this not affect the objectivity of the paper?
A) British tradition has been to have very politically orientated papers. These days each paper has it own perspective. “The Independent,” for example is quite proud to call its self a “viewspaper” rather than a “newspaper,” whereas we are not. I think the objective of reporting is to be objective, whether or not there is such a thing as pure objectivity, the honest answer is no. However, there are newspapers that try hard to be objective. In my own opinion, we try more than other papers to be [objective]. It is true that we are broadly supportive of the “transatlantic” relationships but that does not mean we do not have articles that criticize the US, despite the fact that I have spent a number of years over there and believe that the US is important to us.
We have a clear and rational editorial line, our views are clear but what is also clear to our reporters is that I do not want them to be influenced by our opinions in their reports; this would be counter productive and over a period, would undermine the respect that people have for the paper.
Q) Why is it that the opinion pieces politically lean towards the right?
A) If you do an analysis then you could say that you would find more “center” and “center-right” articles in The Times than in The Guardian for example, that is true. However, that is because at The Guardian, they still have one or two crazy uncles in the attic who are not left wing. Their comment line and even cartoons are quite predictable. Yet in The Times, you would find [politically] center, right, and left articles and I think diversity of views is important because our readers are intelligent. My opinion is that if you believe strongly in your editorial line, then the facts on the ground would prove you right or wrong. You have to have enough faith in your own views to let the facts speak for themselves.
Q) Many people believe that the publications and television channels associated with Rupert Murdoch have a personal agenda. To what extent are you in control of the newspaper rather than Rupert Murdoch?
A) Firstly, all of the judgments of The Times and the areas of judgments are mine. Secondly, if you look at the recent British elections, our sister publication, The Sunday Times, said vote conservative, whilst we said vote Labour. Therefore, if there is a conspiracy, it is an imperfect one!
Q) Has Mr. Murdoch not allied himself with British Prime Minister Tony Blair? To what extent does he interfere editorially?
A) The percentage of interference is zero. I have never spoke to Murdoch regarding a story that was published and never will. He completely understands that and allows me the freedom needed to reach our editorial conclusions. Also, I would like to point out that he is a big supporter of The Times, and one of the things that many people do not credit him for is how much he invests in quality journalism worldwide, I think that when it comes to News Corporation’s image, the myths are far greater in number than the facts.
Q) Why are people quick to criticize Murdoch for Fox News but are less likely to praise him for his other less controversial and more balanced media subsidiaries?
A) It is not for me to discuss the strategy of Fox, but remember that Fox is different to Sky for example as each of them has a different role and a different market.
The majority of conclusions that people reach regarding The Times are inspired by our competitors, and with competition becoming fierce it is normal that they act this way and create myths because it is convenient for them to do so. You could speak to our reporters here, and you will find that not one of them has experienced any editorial intervention.
Q) What are your thoughts on the departure of Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, who has left your paper for The Independent, allegedly due to editorial interference?
A) Robert Fisk is more suitable for a “viewspaper” rather than a newspaper. We are a more traditional paper. I do believe that there is a place for passion but certainly not in the news pages.
Q) You were the editor of the US edition of the Financial Times (FT) before becoming Editor in Chief of The Times. In 2005, The Times was named by the British Business Survey as the UK’s leading paper for the business. What did you bring from the FT and do you believe that a general interest publication could compete with a specialized one?
A) I think that this exactly what we are proving now, as the readership of our business pages has grown largely in the past 4-5 years, and that is not just because of me but also due to the efforts of the extraordinary team we have here. It was not particularly weak before I came, so we have built on a very strong platform. As for what we have done, I am afraid it is more like the “Microsoft code” or KFC’s “Secret Recipe!”
Business people could notice and understand the changes we have made even though our competitors could not comprehend it. What this proves is that we are committed to business journalism, as London is a kind of guided community that lists a bit to the left, and there is opposition to the idea of a market economy, business and profits. However, we are not against business at all, look at what the market economy has done to India and China, how could you be against something like that?
Furthermore, those who are in business know what they want, what they need to know and what they do not need to know and they can also tell if a journalist knows what he writing about or not. Therefore, you have to invest in specialized journalism, as a journalist cannot write about the capital market today and about another topic tomorrow.
In addition, there is investment in global coverage, regardless of what people think of globalization, it remains a fact on the ground. For example, you would not be able to understand what is happening to the car industry here in the UK and the closure of some factories, without learning about what is happening to Toyota or why this Japanese firm is the best car company in the world. It would be ignorant not consider the context, maybe this is something I would say I gained from my experience at the FT.
Q) So in the modern world, any editor in chief of a major publication should be internationally minded? You are an Australian who lived in America did that help you understand the world better?
A) I also spent four years in Beijing and another five years in Tokyo before I went to the US and came back here to the UK, therefore, I would be an abnormal example or a rootless person depending on how you want to define my journalistic experience. You should have an international view, whether or not you have lived abroad and if you have not [lived abroad] then you should read widely about the world. At the very least, you need to have an editor who respects the expertise and opinions of those who come from different countries, even if he himself or herself has not visited these countries.
Q) There is an international edition of The Times, what are your major markets outside of the UK? Are there any plans to print in the US to end the problem of delayed arrival due to shipping and time differences?
Q) That is a possibility, but honestly, the internet has become the best way to deliver The Times content. In the US, we have about 3.5 million users monthly, and more than 8 million a month globally. In a couple of years we will have millions more in India, as we have recently appointed two correspondents over there. This is why I see that the traditional way of expansion used by the FT and Wall Street Journal has been superseded by digital delivery. I am speaking from my experience with the FT in North America, where we have established a number of plants, [by saying that] the internet has become much easier and cheaper.
Q) Were you behind the newspapers’ change in format to compact size?
A) Well, yes. In fact, the idea came to the paper in the seventies for the first time. During my time here, I have seen three different dummies that were actually implemented over the years. Therefore, it was not my original idea however; upon my arrival, I knew that I would implement this at some point. You could feel that time [for the change] had come even when I was in America, as in the newspaper industry, circulation had been going down and one of the reasons is the time pressure. You have to maximize the convenience of the content and the broadsheet format is not the most efficient way to do so.
However, with a newspaper such as The Times, you have to be very careful, because as editor, you are a custodian of a great tradition. The first step we took in this direction was to present ‘The Game,’ a weekly football section in compact size, then The Independent went compact, and it was difficult for us to be the first to transform, again due to the inheritance.
Q) Some critics believe that going compact means bringing down the quality of your content and increased sensation and gossip. What are your thoughts on this?
A) The content is not determined by size but by commissioning decisions. You have to have a little bit of gossip, some people like to read it and many are much more broad in their interests in a way that wasn’t so 1975 when The Times was founded. We do have celebrity news and gossip but in special pages, not all over the paper. This is another example of what our competitors like to spread about us, as since we went compact, we have increased the number of our international correspondents, we have much more business coverage, and a serious supplement on books and another on health. I do not believe that this is “dumbing down.”
Q) Who are your main competitors?
A) There is The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent and The Financial Times to a certain extent. However, there is a major competitor of another type and that is time. The reader stops to buy a newspaper but then he hesitates, and thinks “do I actually have time to read this?” He might choose to pick up a free paper, such as ‘Metro’ whilst on the train. There are also new channels of information. You see people going to work and following the news through email alerts, websites or portable devices. There are also the television channels and cable. Therefore, a person does not wait for his news to arrive in condensed form at 7AM at his doorstep anymore. People nowadays come to the newspaper with more information and a certain percentage of them that should buy a newspaper every day feel that they do not need to. Our job is to increase the frequency of their purchase.
Q) How would you describe your relationship with sister publications at News Corporation? Do you cooperate with other sister publications on the editorial level?
A) There is rivalry between us. There is competition and no sharing of information between us, The Sun and The Sunday Times. We do not cooperate on an editorial level and we should not do so anyway. If there was an exclusive that we received on a Saturday night, we would not give it to The Sunday Times to publish on Sunday but would save it and publish it on Monday.
Q) For much of its history, The Times has been Britain’s “Newspaper of Record”, is that still the case?
A) I would argue it still is…not in the way that it was before when we used to publish government releases, but nowadays we publish a summary and a hyperlink for those who are interested, and those who we have sensed are interested.