Stephen Glover: Thatcher, Murdoch and the meeting that was erased from history

Media Studies: Murdoch's talk of standing up to the unions was music to Thatcher's ears

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.

s.glover@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Digital Project Manager / Web Project Manager

£45-50k (DOE) + Bonus & Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced ...

Account Manager

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Account Manager to join ...

Social Advertising Manager / Social Media Manager

£Excellent + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Social Advertising Manager / Social Med...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment