The Murdoch and Thatcher Meetings: What Really Happened

History shows the media mogul and the former prime minister might have been scratching each other’s backs. Peter Jukes on whether David Cameron and Murdoch’s son are doing the same 30 years later.

03.17.12 5:27 PM ET

Private papers from the archives of Margaret Thatcher released Saturday reveals that, when it comes to the Murdoch family’s 40-year dominance of the British media market, history tries to repeat itself: the first time in secrecy, the second time in scandal.

Over 30 years ago, having already acquired the now defunct Sunday News of the World and the daily Sun a decade earlier, Rupert Murdoch was in control of Britain’s two best-selling papers. In 1979, during a close election between the Labor incumbent and Conservative Party candidate Margaret Thatcher, his Sun dramatically switched its support: “Both young people and traditionally Labou supporters tend to be idealists … That is precisely why, on this momentous occasion, we firmly advise our readers to VOTE TORY.”

A year later, Murdoch sent tremors through the establishment by making a surprise bid for the Times Group. The press was in uproar: questions were raised in the House of Commons. Not only was Murdoch proposing to take over the historic paper of record, The Times of London (which Abraham Lincoln had once described as having more power than anything except the Mississippi), but combined with the esteemed Sunday Times and existing tabloids, he would own 27 percent of the newspaper market. The Tory government was legally bound to refer the bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It should have been dead in the water.

For decades, the full story of Murdoch’s eventual acquisition of the Times Group has consisted of guesswork. He wooed the unions and editorial staff by promising jobs and independence—promises he rapidly broke. Many suspected a behind-the-scenes deal, and the diaries of Woodrow Wyatt, a confidante of both Murdoch and Thatcher, outlined the quid pro quos of political support. However, until now, any personal meetings between the Proprietor and the prime minister on the bid have been denied.

In a timely move, the Thatcher Foundation has just released papers detailing Murdoch’s secret lunch with Thatcher in January 1981. The fix is in. Murdoch (who had moved to the U.S. in 1973) promised to introduce Thatcher to President Ronald Reagan and key members of his entourage.  Meanwhile, the bid could be waved through on a technicality: The Times, though not The Sunday Times, was a money-loser. The rest—Murdoch’s unflagging support for Thatcher—is history.

Flash forward 30 years and Rupert’s son James, hoping to seal his role as heir apparent, planned to take over the whole of BSkyB, Britain’s monopoly pay-TV satellite service. The move would breach competition law and the stringent “pluralism’” test of the broadcasting regulator Ofcom. But in 2008, in his first major speech as News Corp senior executive, James called for Ofcom’s powers to be removed. In July 2009, the Conservative Party leader David Cameron made a similar speech. A month later, at the Edinburgh Television Festival, James called for the BBC to be downsized. Two months later the Sun, now under the direct control of James, reversed twelve years of Labor support. At the general election in 2010, all News International papers told their readership to vote Conservative.

With David Cameron finally in 10 Downing Street, and with his father Rupert one of the first visitors James launched his $15-billion bid for the remaining share of BSkyB in May 2010. Again there was uproar in the press, and questions were raised in Parliament. However, in September, the Coalition slashed the BBC’s budget by 16 percent in a comprehensive spending review. That December, the Liberal Democrat Minister Vince Cable was removed from oversight of the takeover when he was caught in a sting operation saying he had “declared war on Mr. Murdoch” and wanted the bid referred. Instead the process was overseen by Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, and with some vague promises of independence for Sky News, the BSkyB bid was in days of being waved through July last year.

But then the story broke of the phone-hacking of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. The bid was withdrawn.

We now know the details of the meetings between Murdoch and Thatcher at her country residence in Chequers in 1981. When will we discover what was really discussed between Cameron and James when they met at Chequers in November 2010? Or in July that summer? Or at Christmas a month later? Will it take another 30 years for the truth to come out?