News International ousted James Harding as editor of The Times yesterday (Wednesday) as it paved the way to merge the newspaper with The Sunday Times, it can be disclosed.
Senior executives at Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper operation have made informal approaches to the Government to seek permission to restructure the papers as a single, seven-day news operation.
News International is currently bound by undertakings Murdoch gave the Government when he acquired The Times to keep the two titles separate. However, News International executives have sounded out government figures to see if they can be released from the legal agreement, which is signed by Murdoch and sits in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
A source within News International said that the newspaper group was "uniquely handicapped" by not being allowed to consider merging its titles. "We are uniquely disadvantaged in terms of trying to balance the books and make the newspapers viable in the long term," the source said.
The Daily Telegraph revealed last week that Harding was close to leaving The Times. He resigned yesterday at the request of the board, with what is understood to have been a pounds 1.3m pay-off. "It has been made clear to me that News Corporation would like to appoint a new editor of The Times," he said.
It is understood that Murdoch was unhappy at the way the newspaper had covered the News of the World phone hacking scandal, particularly in recent months.
Harding will leave at the end of the year and is in discussions about taking a job elsewhere in Murdoch's media empire.
John Witherow, editor of The Sunday Times, is expected to replace Harding. Witherow's deputy, Martin Ivens, could take the helm of the more successful Sunday title, until News International gets permission for a full merger.