This came to mind from reading Roy Greenslade's column (Jan 2013), in which he urges the current independent directors to resign en masse as The Times editor has just resigned, stating Murdoch made it clear he wanted someone else in, but the board weren't consulted. This is a great, contemporary, example that helps evidence the argument that proprietors (owners) do have editorial influence over their papers.
Full article copied in below.
When James Harding "resigned" as editor of The Times a month ago he told the paper's journalists:
"It has been made clear to me that News Corporation would like to appoint a new editor of the Times. I have, therefore, agreed to stand down."His decision evidently surprised Rupert Murdoch. And it certainly shocked the independent national directors (INDs) of Times Newspapers Holdings. One of them was so upset he told friends he was planning to resign.
Given their remit, as set out in their witness statement to the Leveson inquiry in October 2011, I believe all should have resigned en masse. But there's no dishonour in doing it now.
Before we get to the reasons, here's the current line-up:
Rupert Pennant-Rea, chairman of the Economist group and former deputy governor of the Bank of England; Veronica Wadley, London arts council chair and former editor of the London Evening Standard; Sarah Bagnall, a director of PR agency Pelham Bell Pottinger and once a financial journalist on The Times;
Lady (Diana) Eccles, a UK delegate to the Council of Europe and a director of Opera North; Lord Marlesford (formerly Mark Schreiber), adviser to financial institutions and one-time Economist journalist; Stephen Grabiner, former Telegraph group and Express Newspapers executive. (He replaced Sir Robin Mountfield, former cabinet office permanent secretary, who died in November 2011).
In their submission to Leveson, the INDs explained that their body was established in 1981, when News International was about to buy The Times and Sunday Times, "with the purpose of protecting editorial freedom from interference by the proprietor."
"Our locus is most obvious in the appointment of a new editor, whose nomination requires our approval - and we could of course reject it. The same applies to any proposal by the management of Times Newspapers to dismiss an editor.I accept that Harding resigned, so the INDs were confronted with a fait accompli. But, as his statement made clear, he was leaving because Murdoch was seeking to appoint someone in his place. I cannot see how that can be called anything but constructive dismissal and also a slap in the face for the INDs.
That too would not be possible without the approval of the INDs, who would take full account of all the circumstances involved in any decision."
Harding was popular with his staff. He was regarded, even among rivals in the journalistic community, as having performed well. He took a leading role in seeking a post-Leveson settlement.
So why did he go? The only plausible reason is that Murdoch disliked the way in which Harding overcame his initial reluctance to cover the News of the World phone hacking scandal by doing so with commendable gusto.
The INDs referred in glowing terms to that fact by telling Leveson that the editors of The Times and Sunday Times had been "able to report and comment freely on matters directly affecting other titles owned by the proprietor."
And they underlined their belief in an editor's right to exercise press freedom that is free from proprietorial influence by stating:
"There is a fundamental truth at the heart of the IND model: that the interests of a pluralist, open and democratic society are best served by a free press, and that 'free' involves giving autonomy to editors of publications to report and comment as they and their staff see fit."Surely, Harding's autonomy to report and comment was completely undermined. He was unable to exercise his freedom.
Evidently, one of the INDs, Pennant-Rea, was flabbergasted by what happened to Harding. Like the others, he has stayed on. But it has been a disturbing episode that all of them have yet to resolve.
My colleagues, Dan Sabbagh and Lisa O'Carroll, reported on Tuesday about the delay in appointing a a successor to Harding, widely expected to be the current Sunday Times editor, John Witherow.
Murdoch wants him, but the new man in charge at Wapping, Robert Thomson, has spoken of "logistical difficulties" in completing the appointment. In others words, the INDs are still smarting from the Harding affair and refuse to rubber-stamp Witherow's appointment.
That doesn't mean it won't happen. It doesn't mean that Witherow is not the best man for the job (though plenty of Times staff certainly don't think that). It is simply a confirmation that the INDs are very unhappy about the situation in which they find themselves.
It is feasible to argue that the episode shows they are not genuinely independent and merely a fig leaf. On the other hand, the undue delay in appointing Witherow could be taken to imply they are indeed asserting their independence.