The Times - It Is A-Changin'; Can the New Editor's 'Mission to Explain' Strategy Succeed in Beating the Daily Telegraph?

By Chancellor, Alexander | The Evening Standard (London, England), May 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Times - It Is A-Changin'; Can the New Editor's 'Mission to Explain' Strategy Succeed in Beating the Daily Telegraph?


Chancellor, Alexander, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: ALEXANDER CHANCELLOR

I'VE never met Robert Thomson-the new editor of The Times, but I have yet to hear a bad word said about him.

He seems to be pretty much liked by everybody. Seasoned Times journalists of the old school are particularly pleased with his appointment. They feared an Australian axeman, but instead they have found him reassuring and appreciative. "He lets me write whatever I like. It's wonderful," one specialist writer told me ecstatically the other day. Even rival newspaper editors seem to consider him a very decent bloke.

But three months into the job, Thomson remains inscrutable.

Perhaps his intimacy with China has something to do with it - he speaks Mandarin and, like his boss Rupert Murdoch, has a Chinese wife - but he keeps his own counsel. Even Roy Greenslade, the Guardian's media guru to whom he granted his first interview on Monday, found him very hard to read.

"He is, as I had learned in advance, a subtle man," Greenslade wrote. "When I sought to draw him out on his personal attitude towards Britain forgoing the pound in favour of the euro, his circumlocutions defeated me. He simply refused to commit." That is very odd, Thomson is not in the Government. He doesn't have to watch his words. And The Times under his predecessor, Peter Stothard, was fanatically antieuro. You would expect him, even if he has no genuine opinion on the matter, to take the trouble to concoct one.

Greenslade gave a hugely flattering resum? of Thomson's career so far, spent mainly abroad in the service of the Financial Times, but the euro reference wasn't the only thing in the interview to ring alarm bells. His vision of The Times, Thomson said, was "a fact based newspaper at the quality end of the market". It would be "as objective as any journalism can be objective".

"Objectivity in a newspaper is in and of itself a journalistic philosophy that should be cherished."

That was fine as far as it went, but what was notably missing from Thomson's vision of The Times was any hint of fun, or of mischief, or of the rough-and-tumble that makes the adrenaline flow. Could it be that, under Thomson, The Times is going to be rather dull?

Could it be that the "Thunderer" will never thunder again? The omens are not good. The photograph of Thomson in The Guardian showed him trendily dressed in an Armani-style suit and with rings on the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand. Who did he vaguely remind me of? John Birt. And that wasn't the only thing about him that invited comparison with the former Director-General of the BBC.

When asked by Greenslade how The Times would change, Thomson pointed at a front-page panel in last Thursday's paper explaining the five economic conditions for Britain to join the euro. "You'll see a lot more of that in future," he said. "Readers should know that you're doing your darndest to explain what's happening." He is clearly a believer in John Birt's famous "mission to explain". …

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