Rupert Murdoch has moved a step closer to merging the Times and the Sunday Times after the Culture Secretary said she was preparing to abolish legal restrictions in a move that could result in job cuts.
Nadine Dorries told Parliament that the undertakings dating back to 1981 were "no longer appropriate or necessary for the purpose they were intended to achieve" and was "minded to" back News UK's bid to remove them.
The comments come after a report by the media regulator Ofcom said there was a "strong commercial rationale" behind News UK's appeal given some rivals had already cut costs by sharing reporters and back-office operations between their daily and Sunday titles.
Ofcom concluded that scrapping the undertakings would not have a "material impact on plurality" and said it welcomed attempts to secure the "long-term viability" of newspapers in a tough market exacerbated by a downturn in newspaper circulation and print advertising.
In a separate report, the competition watchdog found that maintaining the legal hurdles would have a "significant" impact on News UK’s ability to cut costs because they prevented the company from creating a "fully unified structure" across the two newspapers.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said: "Based on the analysis we have carried out, it appears that the indirect cost savings arising from the ability to restructure and merge desks fully could have a material impact on the financial performance of The Times Newspaper Limited."
Launching a two-week consultation ahead of a final decision, the Culture Department said the CMA report showed the removal would have a "significantly positive impact on News UK's financial position", while Ms Dorries agrees with Ofcom's findings that the impact on media plurality would be "limited".
News UK argued in an application to ministers over the summer that there was a need to slash costs and jobs amid the pandemic's blow to newspaper sales and the rise of digital news.
Mr Murdoch also called for the termination of an independent board directors put in place by Margaret Thatcher to rein in his influence over the newsroom.
The Thatcher government imposed a formal separation of the titles' newsrooms more than 40 years ago amid concerns mounted over the media mogul's expansion of power across Fleet Street.
News UK has warned that rivals now pose a threat to the "economic viability" of the Times and Sunday Times because consolidation across the industry had created an "uneven playing field".
It added: “Whilst maintaining the independence of The Times and Sunday Times news desks, News UK will take further steps to integrate feature desks across seven days, and to merge editorial services across both titles including pictures, graphics, subbing and production … News UK aims to making [sic] savings as a result of these changes and from reducing the headcount of the editorial team.”
The Times and Sunday Times have separate heritage and have had different owners, but were bought collectively by Mr Murdoch in 1981 from Kenneth Thomson, the son of the Canadian publishing magnate Roy Thomson. They have previously taken different stances on key political issues, including on the Brexit vote.
News UK declined to comment.