Release of MT's private files for 1981 - (4) the media (Murdoch; riots; off the record interviews)

The files contain some fascinating sidelights on MT's relationship with the media, a topic almost entirely omitted from the official archive maintained by Whitehall and transferred to Kew. In the minds of officials, press handling is a matter of passing interest at best, regrettable or discreditable at worst. All records of it are routinely destroyed as unworthy of permanent preservation, indeed unworthy full stop.

Fortunately Bernard Ingham thought otherwise and did everything he could to preserve a record. His files at Churchill, and the section of MT's files created by his press office, are among the most valuable in reconstructing the politics of her time.

media (1) murdoch buys the times: secretly meets mt at chequers (4 jan 1981)

Opening paragraphs of Bernard Ingham's careful note of the Murdoch lunch

There is a long note in MT's personal files by Bernard Ingham, marked “Commercial – In Confidence”, of a secret meeting between her and Rupert Murdoch, held at Chequers on 4 Jan 1981, at his request, where he told her about his bid to buy Times Newspapers Limited - The Times, Sunday Times and associated smaller titles.

In one sense this is a surprise, because the official history of The Times specifically denies that there was any direct contact between the two in this period, footnoting Rupert Murdoch as the source of the information (Graham Stewart, The History of The Times, Volume VII, pp28-29). MT certainly gave the meeting no publicity - instructing that the record should not leave No.10 – but as far as can be found, never denied that it had happened. Questioned on this point at the Leveson Inquiry on 25 April 2012, Murdoch stated that he had had no recollection of the lunch when the book was written, and still had none, going on to say: "I think this meeting was to inform the chief executive of a company of the likelihood of a change of ownership of a great iconic asset".

The record shows that Murdoch did most of the talking, opening with a long discussion of US politics. Indeed MT’s next meeting with him was at the White House, where he was a guest at the state banquet thrown for her by President Reagan at the end of Feb 1981.

Of course, the fate of The Times is the core of the conversation. Murdoch lists his rivals in the fight to buy it (though the record omits mention of one of the most significant, Lord Rothermere) then outlines his plans to make the operation profitable by introducing new technology and lower manning levels, while stressing “the inevitability of progressing gradually”.

But what is most striking perhaps in the document in what is not there. There is no blueprint for Wapping, a plan to defang the print unions. There is no bargaining for support, Murdoch perhaps offering the backing of his papers in return for a waiver of the requirement in the Fair Trading Act 1973 that all major newspaper takeovers be submitted to the MMC. Many people have suspected that some such deal must have been struck, but the impression from this document is quite different. Murdoch came to Chequers in a position of considerable strength and not to bargain at all. He alone had the means and the determination to sustain The Times, which was losing more than £1m a month. His rivals would have bought the whole group to acquire the Sunday Times and closed its daily namesake. For that reason the existing owners, the Thomson family, who very much wanted to see The Times survive, did everything they could to help Murdoch buy it. And he had political cover across the spectrum, because at this stage the unions favoured him too, as offering the best hope for jobs. No one wanted a national newspaper to close, let alone one as prestigious and long-lived as The Times, a title quintessentially British.

The Secretary of State for Trade had the power to waive a reference to the MMC where a paper was unprofitable and in danger of closure without a quick sale. In this case it was hard to see how he could avoid using it. Such a waiver was also needed for the Sunday Times - more of a stretch, since its losses were much smaller and likely to be temporary - but precisely to protect The Times the Thomson family was adamant that the two papers would be sold together.

Murdoch wrote thanking her for lunch on 15 Jan. The key government meeting on the takeover took place on 26 Jan in the cabinet’s Economic Strategy Committee, chaired by MT, leaving the final decision to the Trade Secretary (newly-appointed John Biffen). The minutes of that meeting were released in Jan 2012 at TNA and are available on this site.

media (2): press coverage of the july 1981 riots

The Cambridge files have an interesting fragment revealing No.10’s feelings about the media during the summer 1981 riots.

Ingham jumped into action on 10 July when the Cabinet Secretary, Robert Armstrong, submitted a long section for MT's speech that evening to the Press Gallery, warning the press, in high mandarin style, that their freedom had its limits ("you cannot escape from the positive responsibility so to do your work and conduct your affairs as to defend and preserve the quality of society on which those freedoms depend"). Ingham advised:

(Y)ou should not get into the position of apparently advocating censorship. At the end of a week like this, we run the risk, putting it at its lowest, of alienating the media in doing so.

Whatever view we take of this week's riots, we cannot directly or necessarily indirectly blame the media, some of whom are being very helpful in their follow up. …

I feel very strongly about this. You cannot afford to get across the media. And there is no need to do so, especially when the media itself is worried about its role. Let us worry with them - not at them.

MT heeded his advice; the Armstrong draft never saw light of day. Coincidentally, she had been due to go to Don Giovanni the following evening, Saturday 11 July - with Armstrong. In the event, she spent it touring Brixton with the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

media (3): off the record interviews during 1981

MT was generally wary of the press and particularly uncomfortable with off the record interviews, fearing journalists might let her down and report things said in confidence. Indeed, she had had just that experience. But she still gave a few such interviews, which were usually noted or taped and transcribed.

Graham Turner of the Daily Telegraph saw her on 11 Feb 1981, inviting himself in to tell her a few things he felt she ought to know, such as that people wanted to see a ‘suffering PM’. "The PM commented that she suffered every day but she never had an interviewer (ie on tv) who brought it out. She said she gave Brian Walden an interview every year but on the last two occasions he had been highly technical during the first half-hour and she could not retreat from his questions. She thought that Barbara Walters might be a good interviewer from this point of view". Turner described her smile as “disastrous and patronising”. "No one wanted 'TV Cosmetics' from her: 'they think of you as a tough lady and they don't want charming smiles' (the PM's comment: 'they don't get it').” [THCR 5/2/54 f4]

Ivan Fallon of the Sunday Telegraph saw her on 6 Aug 1981 and asked about unhelpful interventions by Pym and Thorneycroft: "She was damned if she was going to change her views because of such a speech and such a press conference. If she did, there would be no hope for the country or the Party". MT made clear that she thought the limits were in sight as to what could be cut in public spending, and was frank that energy policy was “one of the big disappointments” (Energy Secretary David Howell was moved to Transport the following month, replaced by one of her cleverest and most effective ministers, Nigel Lawson).

She saw Philippe Daudy, a Franco-British Council official writing a book about the two countries and talked with far greater frankness about the NHS than she would ever have done in public [THCR 5/2/71 f7].

If I was able to set up the NHS again I think I would not have gone this way. I think I would probably have gone, although we cannot change it now, the German way. Of course the Germans are very advanced in social services, much more advanced than we are. To insure compulsorily against sickness seems to me sensible. That is a law which in the kind of complex society which we run where there is a great deal of division of labour and specialisation and therefore you just simply cannot be so totally self-reliant or get any job necessarily because of your own self-reliance. It seems to me that it is right that the state insists that people are insured against the worst evils, insured against unemployment, insured against sickness, insured in the sense that they can afford a hospital bed. That was the way the Germans went and there you pick up and keep the essential personal relationship between the doctor and patient.

Keith Renshaw & Michael Toner of the Sunday Express came to see her on 22 Dec 1981, and a tape survives in the files. The interview went off the record in its last section – MT talked about the SDP as being a threat to Tories more than Labour and in the aftermath of the Feb 1981 coal climbdown professed her belief that the miners were "basically reasonable people" who would "think about their neighbours". Scargill had won election as NUM leader because “they recognise a very skilful and good negotiator”, but "I don't think they would follow him in trying to have a row with government. I really don't .... I don't think they will follow him on the political motivation". This was a belief she was constrained to adopt at this point. In truth the government was now doing all it could to prepare for a coal strike, should one come. In the meantime confrontational talk was the last thing she sought.


Rupert Murdoch at the Leveson Inquiry, 25 Apr 2012



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