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Times editors stuck in News Corp row

JOHN Witherow has been named acting editor of London's The Times newspaper after a bizarre standoff between Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and the paper's independent publishing directors meant his permanent appointment could not be endorsed.

News International's chief executive, Mike Darcey, issued a statement late on Friday confirming that Witherow, editor of The Sunday Times since 1994, would take over at the daily ''effective immediately, and subject to formal approval as editor by the independent directors'' of Times Newspapers Ltd.

In a separate internal email to News International staff, not sent out externally, Mr Darcey also confirmed that Martin Ivens would move from deputy editor to acting editor of The Sunday Times. Ivens has been deputy editor since 1996 and both he and Witherow had been tipped for their new jobs.

However, the two were restricted to acting editor roles because the independent directors refused to endorse their appointments amid a row with News Corp.

The directors want News Corp to share any plans to merge the two newspapers in the light of what the company described as their ''very difficult financial position''.

News Corp's private insistence that it has no such plans to merge has failed to convince the directors.


The unusual situation stems from an undertaking given by Mr Murdoch when he bought The Times and The Sunday Times in 1981. He promised Margaret Thatcher's government that the two newspapers would remain distinct and, to protect editorial freedom, the approval of a majority of independent directors would be needed before new editors were appointed.

The six directors include Rupert Pennant-Rea, a former editor of The Economist and deputy governor of the Bank of England; Stephen Grabiner, a venture capitalist who previously worked in The Daily Telegraph's commercial department; and Veronica Wadley, former editor of the London Evening Standard and ex-deputy editor of the Daily Mail.

Witherow replaces James Harding, who resigned in December after it became clear that Murdoch wanted a new editor for The Times. Witherow and Ivens were interviewed by the independent directors on Thursday and an announcement about their appointment was made at 7pm.

But the independent directors said they wanted to review whether a merger of the two newspapers might be prudent despite News Corp's stated desire to keep them independent. ''A thorough assessment of the undertakings will enable [the independent directors] to make recommendations to us and to government as to how the newspapers can be structured in order to reduce their costs and become economically viable,'' Mr Darcey said.