Did the Thatcher government bend the rules to allow Rupert Murdoch to buy The Times and Sunday Times in January 1981, thereby cementing his dominant position in the British Press? Many have alleged as much without producing conclusive evidence. A note just released as part of the Thatcher papers suggests Mr Murdoch was given an inside track.
It records that the press tycoon lunched at Chequers with Margaret Thatcher on 4 January 1981 at his suggestion and for the expressed purpose of outlining his bid for the two newspapers. This lunch has hitherto never been mentioned. The official history of The Times: The Murdoch Years by Graham Stewart states that Mrs Thatcher (as she then was) and Mr Murdoch scarcely knew each other at the time, and "had no communication whatsoever during the period in which The Times bid and referral was up for discussion".
Mr Stewart sources this incorrect assertion in his book to an interview he conducted with Mr Murdoch in August 2003. He suggests the newspaper tycoon relied on the journalist Woodrow Wyatt to plead his case. Margaret Thatcher does not mention the lunch in her memoirs The Downing Street Years. In fact, there is not a single reference to Mr Murdoch in the entire 914-page book.
Other released papers reveal that at a meeting of the Cabinet economic strategy committee on 26 January 1981 Mrs Thatcher raised the possibility of an exemption under the Fair Trading Act 1973 which would allow Mr Murdoch's bid to avoid referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The basis for such an exemption was that The Times and Sunday Times were together loss-making, though the latter was profitable. Also present at the meeting was John Biffen, Secretary of State for Trade. The next day he told the Commons there would be no referral.
The note about the Chequers lunch makes no mention of Mr Murdoch's desired exemption from the Monopolies Commission, but his remarks about de-manning and standing up to the powerful Fleet Street unions were music to Mrs Thatcher's ears. Both the lunch and her subsequent contribution at the Cabinet committee lend credence to the suggestion that she was determined that he would gain control of these newspapers.
However, we should remember he had no clear rivals. At lunch he mentioned Sir James Goldsmith, Tiny Rowland (then owner of The Observer), Robert Maxwell (owner of the Daily Mirror) and a consortium of Times journalists, all of whose bids were generally considered impractical or undesirable, or both. Mr Murdoch did not include his only really serious competitor, Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail. But Vere Rothermere coveted The Sunday Times above all, and refused to give an undertaking that he would never close The Times.
It is not at all clear what would have happened had Mr Murdoch withdrawn, as he threatened to do if his bid was referred. Sir James Goldsmith? Tiny Rowland? Such ideas are laughable. Other than Lord Rothermere, who effectively disqualified himself, Rupert Murdoch was the only plausible contender. Margaret Thatcher was arguably bowing to the near inevitable while keeping a beady eye on the prospect of the media tycoon's future support.
A reasonable case could be made for Rupert Murdoch having been a reliable steward of The Times and Sunday Times: he has certainly borne losses of tens of millions of pounds on the former. But it is also true that his acquisition of these titles in addition to The Sun and the News of the World made him too powerful a figure. Sometimes he has used his power well, as when he took on, and beat, the overmighty print unions, which were in the process of destroying national newspapers. At other times – for example, his cutting the cover price of The Times in an attempt to kill off this newspaper – he has abused his power. And above all, of course, he has seduced every Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher with the possible exception of John Major.
So that lunch, even if it was a stepping stone on the way to his inevitable purchase of these two newspapers, was momentous. And that explains why Rupert Murdoch concealed it from the official historian of The Times.
Archbishop in the glare of The Sun
According to yesterday's Mail on Sunday, the column by Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, in the Sunday edition of The Sun has not gone down well with the church authorities. Presumably they would be perfectly happy if Dr Sentamu had taken up his pen for The Guardian or Independent, but his writing for a Murdoch-owned popular tabloid has stuck in ecclesiastical craws.
Now that he is being touted as the favourite to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury in succession to Dr Rowan Williams, Dr Sentamu faces a dilemma. If he gives up the column, he may be seen as biddable. If he continues with it, he will be accused of keeping suspect company. I don't really see why he shouldn't write a column, but if he wants to be the next Anglican Primate my advice would be to give it up.