Magazine article The Spectator

Farewell, Then, Peter Stothard, Editor of the Times, Whose Circulation Triumph Came at a Price

Magazine article The Spectator

Farewell, Then, Peter Stothard, Editor of the Times, Whose Circulation Triumph Came at a Price

Article excerpt

How will history judge the nine-and-a-- half-years editorship of my old friend Peter Stothard? There is much on the plus side. He roughly doubled the circulation of the Times, In September 1993 he and his proprietor Rupert Murdoch embraced the idea of a price cut. The received wisdom was that, in this part of the market, buyers did not mind too much whether their paper cost ten pence more or less. It was certainly what I believed. But Messrs Murdoch's and Stothard's experiment was triumphantly successful.

It is perfectly true that in the process the Independent has been half killed off, and the Daily Telegraph given a hard run for its money. (By contrast, the Guardian proved resilient, and the Daily Mail has prospered.) But Mr Murdoch and Mr Stothard will not shed very many tears over the tribulations of their rivals. It is also true, as these rivals never tire of pointing out, that the price war has cost the Times tens of millions of pounds. But if you consider how much newspapers spend on marketing costs just to put on a few, often temporary, readers, the enormous strides which the Times has made in circulation have been bought relatively cheaply. Mr Stothard, I believe, claims at least partial authorship of the price cut. If he is right to do so, it was a piece of brilliant generalship.

But, as readers of this column will know, there was a price to pay. The dumbing down of the Times did not, oddly enough, take place during the 1980s editorship of the former mid-market journalist Charlie Wilson. The process may have begun in those years, but it gathered pace under Mr Stothard. The new readers who were attracted by the price cut did not on the whole want a paper which they might regard as stuffy, elitist and excessively highbrow. Mr Stothard produced a rather cunning a la carte menu. On the one hand, old Times readers were supposed to be reassured by the presence of outstanding writers such as William Rees-Mogg, Simon Jenkins, Matthew Parris, Anatole Kaletsky and Anthony Howard, as well as generally upmarket foreign coverage and the customarily Olympian leaders. On the other hand, new readers were lured by more easily digestible home news, pictures of actresses with few clothes on, and acres of soft features. Perhaps, too, they were less upset by the howlers which have continued to plague the paper. Over the past couple of weeks the Times has sent Clement Attlee to Eton, had Stalin living in 1956, and, only this Wednesday, described Napoleon III as Napoleon 11.

Dumbing down was the inevitable concomitant of the Times's price cut, and the upshot has been a remarkably heterogeneous newspaper. One can no longer say with any conviction who the Times reader might be. Mr Stothard would probably reply that these developments are part of the modern age, and that people like me are living in the past. I obviously don't see it like that. There was no need to have Posh Beckham rubbing shoulders with William Rees-- Mogg. Under a different proprietor the old standards could have been maintained. The truth is that in 1993 Mr Murdoch decided, after having done surprisingly little with the Times for 12 years, that he wanted to turn it into a highly commercial proposition. He hoped to sell a million copies a day, and to overtake the Daily Telegraph. This could only be done by price cutting and dumbing down. Mr Stothard very nearly delivered Mr Murdoch's dream: at one stage the circulation of the Times rose to nearly 850,000. …

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