JournoFest 2023: In conversation with The Times chairman John Witherow

Our seventh annual journalism conference JournoFest 2023 opened with our keynote speaker John Witherow.

Witherow was editor of The Times between 2013 and 2022, before being appointed chairman of Times Newspapers Ltd. He joined News UK in 1980 and was appointed editor of The Sunday Times in 1994.

He focussed his talk on why now, more than ever, is a great time to get into journalism and why he is optimistic about the future of journalism.

Here, part-time trainee Hannah-Maria Ward shares what she learnt.

When reflecting on his pathway into the industry, Witherow said: “It was the excitement of every day going in and thinking about what’s going to happen and being part of it.

“It’s the old cliché, you are on the front row of history, you are playing a part in it.” 

His editorship saw the cash-for-questions and cash-for-honours scandals exposed, resulting in subsequent parliamentary reform and the publication of the Noland Report, changing the face of the establishment in Britain.

Witherow said: “The Sunday Times played a key role in exposing the laziness and, essentially, corruption in the Tory party then.”

The Labour party was also exposed in the cash-for-honours story and saw Tony Blair, then serving as prime minister, questioned by police in Number 10.

It was the first time a prime minister had ever been questioned by police while in office.

Witherow added: “When you get the good stories, and it changes things, the press is there as self-appointed guardians to try and keep governments and institutions honest and less corrupt.

“That’s the sort of noble cause of journalism, I think. It does do that. They take account. They’re frightened of exposure – it limits people cheating and being corrupt. We have a real unstated purpose of that.

“Britain is relatively incorrupt – we may have had a blip recently. But I think relatively incorrupt. That’s crucial. If a country becomes corrupt, it basically destroys it.”

It was while volunteering at a school in Namibia, then governed by South Africa, Witherow found himself employed by the BBC World Service and BBC Africa Service to report on anti-apartheid protests and South Africa’s subsequent expulsion from the United Nations.

It was here Witherow became a journalist, later gaining employment with Reuters as a trainee.

He said: “There’s a lesson, you’ve got to keep going if you are determined and put yourself forward.

“Be ambitious and go for things – don’t be worried that you don’t get them. People take notice, be plausible.”

He later moved to The Times where in his first weeks he covered the Iranian Embassy siege, then later sent to the Falklands to report on the war, returning and spending six months on an exchange with The Boston Globe and later working for The Sunday Times as a general reporter and later editor.

Witherow spoke at length on the ‘turmoil’ of the media’s influence on the personalities within Number 10 and Whitehall.

He said: “Thatcher wisely didn’t read the newspaper, she got a summary. People like John Major were obsessed and would worry about it.

“They were very thin skinned. Boris is very thin skinned. It’s surprising, they should rise above it.

“You need to stand back, but they don’t. They really care what the media says.”

For Witherow, the future of journalism is bright. He said: “This is a great time to get into journalism. I think journalism is much better now than in my time.

“There were a lot of abuses early on – bad reporting and people weren’t held to account for it. It’s gotten better and better. The future commercially is very good. The Times is now highly profitable, which it wasn’t 10 years ago.”

The Times’ commercial success has a direct correlation between launching Times Radio in 2020 and the growth of digital journalism on their website and app, enabling readers to get closer to the story and to the journalists writing them with the introduction of reader’s comments.

He said: “We wanted The Times to be a community where like-minded people can communicate.”

Overall, the effect has been positive. Witherow said: “If readers spot a mistake, and most Times readers know far more than the journalists will, we correct it quickly.

“If there’s a bias in the copy, we take notice of that and try and rectify it. This never happened before digital.

“Papers will pursue certain angles, particularly the tabloids, who are far more polemical. We try, along with The Telegraph and The Guardian to stand back more and report.

“Times readers hate having angles thrust upon them. They regard that as tabloid journalism, and they are very sensitive about that. You will read comments saying that this is a red top story when it isn’t. They are very conscious and want The Times to be quality, serious and report dispassionately. They want to make up their own minds.”

You can read all the highlights and top tips from JournoFest 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 here.