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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

International Promotions Manager - Consumer Products

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: A global entertainment busi...

Head of Finance - Media

£80000 - £90000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for an International Mul...

Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?