For Clues to a Murdoch-Owned Journal, Look to London

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 10, 2007

Which Rupert Murdoch wants to buy the Wall Street Journal?

Is it the Murdoch who promised journalistic independence to a former editor of the Times of London, only to tell him later -- the editor wrote -- that such assurances "aren't worth the paper they're written on"?

Or is it the Murdoch who has spent freely to expand the money-losing Times and loves to mix it up with the newshounds there, peppering them with questions as he "exercises his curiosity" about geopolitics, says the paper's current editor?

The question is urgent among reporters and editors at the Journal -- who are at a "high level of alarm," says one -- and probably among some American news consumers as well. They fear that Murdoch's News Corp. will acquire the Journal with its unsolicited, maybe-too-high-to-turn-down $5 billion bid and then destroy it. They fear he will extend the Journal's conservative editorial-page ideology into the paper's news stories, turning the Journal into a mouthpiece for Murdoch's politics and a cudgel with which to beat his enemies.

It's hard for some to imagine a weirder mixed marriage in journalism than Murdoch and the Journal, the august paper of record for the U.S. economy. When most people think "Murdoch," they probably don't think "august." They probably think "Married With Children," Bill O'Reilly and the famous screaming headlines of London tabloids and the New York Post.

But U.K. journalists had similar fears in 1981, when Murdoch bought the venerated Times of London. It was a publication so upper-crust, its motto was "The Top People's Paper." Some feared that the audacious Aussie would do a journalistic drop-trou on the Fleet Street grandee.

And indeed, the Times switched to a tabloid size in 2004. But that's largely where the similarities end. Over the past 26 years, Murdoch has treated the Times as the journalistic crown jewel of his empire, according to current and former employees.

Times staffers in London say that if Murdoch gets the Journal, he may handle it as he does the Times: as a valuable nexus for the latest intelligence on the global marketplace.

"He's really interested in what's going on in the world," says Robert Thomson, Times editor since 2002. "He'll ask about Asia, ask about the French election, ask about the German economy."

Neither Thomson nor other Times staffers interviewed said they could remember Murdoch killing or advocating an article or a particular area of coverage.

Thomson says that he talks to Murdoch two to three times a week on the phone and that the U.S.-based press lord makes about one newsroom visit to the Times per year. On a recent drop-in, Thomson said, Murdoch got into a long and animated conversation with the Times's news editor about the big stories of the day.

In many ways, such an attitude makes sense for a businessman with properties in nearly every time zone around the globe. His most valuable asset is probably not a sympathetic member of Parliament, buttered up by glowing editorials, but the latest information that flows into the Times from its top-notch news gatherers.

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