Why did the times pass on the mps expenses leak?

By refusing the MPs expenses exclusive, The Times handed the story of the century to its main rival. Why is a mystery

The Daily Telegraph tour de force goes on and on, and on present form, could continue until the summer recess. But there is one little oddity. As Sherlock Holmes would have put it, there is a dog that for some reason hasn’t barked.

The Times passes up the opportunity to publish the scoop of the century that will change political life in the UK for decades to come. And the scoop is allowed to pass to the paper’s deadly rival, The Torygraph, on a plate.

In the old days, when battle lines were cleanly drawn between Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black, the aim was for The Times to knock The Telegraph off its perch as the leading quality daily and achieve 1 million sales a day. Happy times.

But to surrender to The Telegraph on MPs expenses after being offered the story first, without, so far as anyone knows, any instant dismissals, is truly extraordinary.

At the very least you would have expected editor James Harding to be offered the opportunity of furthering his career as obituaries editor – but only if Murdoch was in a particularly benign mood that day.

So how can we explain the decision – and the fact that not a single dog has barked?

Sensitivity about handling stolen documents? Hardly. There remains a widespread view that the leaking to The Sun of the entire contents of the Hutton report into the BBC came from the purchase of a printed copy.

Too dear at £100,000? Surely not when Murdoch is prepared to squander nearly £15m a year on thelondonpaper, simply to poke Daily Mail and Metro owner Viscount Rothermere in the eye with a sharp stick.

Fears of legal action? If that was the issue someone would have been defenestrated by now for such a gutless error of judgement.
Whatever the reason it’s the deafening silence that remains the most intriguing mystery.

There seems only one rational explanation – that the decision was taken, or ratified, by someone who cannot be publicly criticised or fired. And there are only two people who fit that description. James Murdoch, who runs News International, and the chairman of The News Corporation himself, Rupert Murdoch. How else can you explain the fact that no one has been chucked into the Thames or sent to the nearby Tower?

But what could the motive have been? Murdoch is famous for hedging his bets until an obvious winner emerges and then he blithely hops on the bandwagon. Only in recent days has The Sun, which also turned down the story, begun clearly to lean towards supporting David Cameron.
Murdoch may have decided, wrongly, that it did not serve his interests to piss off the entire British political class at one fell swoop.

If it is difficult to understand the decision taken by The Times, it is equally difficult to heap too much praise on The Telegraph for having the courage to take on the risks associated with purchasing a stolen terabyte of information containing 2 million documents.

Maybe The Telegraph should start calling itself The Thunderer – a title it has now surely earned. Of course it would have been more convenient if the leaker had been altruistic but you cannot chose your leakers. He was a silly old leaker anyway. The Mail is still spitting feathers that he wasn’t bright enough to come to them. Executives suggest a cheque for £500,000 would have been in his hand within five minutes if he had had the wit to make his way to Kensington High Street.

What everyone in the industry – rivals included – agree on is that once The Telegraph got the material its writers have shown enormous journalistic flair in turning a mountain of raw data into such a compelling political narrative. Many terms, euphemisms and metaphors will enter common speech as a result – everything from flipping, moats and duck houses to the immortal phrase “it was all within the rules”.

The gossip is The Telegraph is saving up Speaker Michael Martin to be the cigar at the end of a fine meal. Perhaps he should pause before ordering his ermine.

The Telegraph has received, and deserves, endless praise with many awards to come. It has also raised the profile and the status of the newspaper industry at this most difficult of economic times.

Does anyone seriously suggest that bunging out 2 million undifferentiated documents on the internet would have the same effect?

But what apart from circulation rises of between 37,000 and 87,000 a day has The Telegraph got out of it as every media outlet including the BBC rapidly ripped off the paper’s tireless work.

In one thing Rupert Murdoch is surely right. It really is time to pursue a serious debate about finding the right mechanisms for charging for prime online newspaper content.


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