Remembering Margaret Thatcher

04.09.13

The Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch Connection

The public remembers Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as ‘ideological soulmates.’ But it was the Iron Lady’s connection with Rupert Murdoch that was key, argues Peter Jukes.

Though Baroness Margaret Thatcher will receive a “ceremonial” rather than the “state funeral” accorded to Sir Winston Churchill 50 years ago, she does have one advantage over the wartime British leader: she created an ideology: Thatcherism.

Part of the global success of Thatcherism was the key support of Ronald Reagan. As George Schulz describes it, they were “ideological soulmates” – the ultimate ‘80s power couple. But Thatcher’s special transatlantic relationship was predated and enabled by another: with the Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

He was the son of a media baron, she the daughter of a grocer, but they had a common heritage of non-conformist Protestantism—in his case Scottish Presbyterianism, in hers the Methodist movement. Both went to Oxford University and chafed at the snobbery of English elites.  Together they formed a radical right-wing populism that railed against the “establishment” even when they became rapidly part of it.

On the day of the general election in May 1979, Murdoch’s tabloid the Sun—which had only just taken over from the Daily Mirror as the nation’s bestselling paper—shifted from its traditional Labour support with a front- page editorial arguing Thatcher’s election would be better for the working classes.

It didn’t quite turn out like that.  Within two years of Thatcher taking office, British unemployment had risen to 2 million. Damian Barr, whose book Maggie and Me is published by Bloomsbury next month, was the child of a Scottish steelworker at the time, and saw the direct effect on his family and his community. “She ripped the heart out of the community,” he told The Daily Beast. “My family were no longer working class, but effectively underclass, living on benefits.”

Mid-way through her first term, Thatcher was polling as the most unpopular prime minister in recent history, but the real threat did not come from a divided opposition or disaffected country but from members of her own party.

Behind the ideological marriage of Reagan and Thatcher then, Rupert Murdoch was the best man.

It was just at this moment that Murdoch launched a bid for the Times Group Newspapers. The deal should have been referred to the competition authorities as Murdoch already owned a substantial chunk of Fleet Street. But as revealed by the Thatcher archives during the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics last year, Murdoch secretly met with the prime minister at her country residence in Chequers in early 1981 to discuss the takeover.

The deal was waived through, and The Times, often considered the in-house journal of the British ruling classes, joined the tabloids in supporting Thatcher’s radical right-wing reforms.

She won by a landslide in the 1983 election—albeit with a smaller share of the vote. When Murdoch moved his News International newsgroup to a new headquarters in Wapping overnight in 1986, he was widely hailed as a savior of the British press. The nightly confrontations with print union pickets outside the new building became almost as iconic of the ‘80s as the miners' strike two years before. Thatcher promised Murdoch stalwart police support, sowing the seeds of a close relationship between News International and the Metropolitan police, that would cause problems during the hacking scandal exposed in 2011.

As one of her ministers, Sir Norman Fowler, recently described it, Thatcher’s motive was quite simple. "Why are you so opposed to Rupert?" she would ask critics of Murdoch. "He is going to get us in."

But Thatcher owed Murdoch more than just press advocacy.  As the minutes from the 1981 meeting make clear, Murdoch offered to introduce Maggie to key players behind the scenes in Washington just before Reagan was to be inaugurated as president. He’d already relocated to New York from London several years before Thatcher’s election, and was attuned to the combative style of American new right thinking, especially from senior Nixon aides like Roger Ailes (who would go on to run Murdoch’s Fox News Network) and Pat Buchanan, who came up with the tactic of “positive polarization” around social issues.

Behind the ideological marriage of Reagan and Thatcher then, Rupert Murdoch was the best man.

She never forgot her debt. Even on the brink of being forced to resign in 1990, she waived through a merger of his off-shore company Sky with the licensed British satellite company, BSB. Thus Britain’s satellite monopoly, BSkyB, which now as 50% higher revenues than the BBC, was born.

Damian Barr, who worked for The Times for nearly 10 years, says, “Thatcher did more for social mobility than David Cameron has ever done.”

“She taught me you could become who wanted,” Barr said, “and succeed through hard work.” But Barr points out that he was the “only person I know” who came from a public state school background who worked at The Times.

Eliza Filby, another child of Thatcherism and author of the forthcoming book God and Mrs Thatcher, sees a fatal flaw at the heart of the Iron Lady’s project. “She tried to instill the non-conformism of her father,” Filby told The Daily Beast, “but in the end created a country entirely consumed by the new religion of casino capitalism.”

“It was one of Mrs. Thatcher’s biggest personal regrets that she did not see a moral purpose instilled in the rich,” Filby concluded.