Murdoch did meet Thatcher before Times takeover, memo reveals | Media | The Guardian
A secret meeting between Rupert Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher cleared the way for News International to buy the Times and Sunday Times in 1981, Thatcher’s private files reveal.
A long note – marked by her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, as “commercial in confidence” – of the Sunday lunch at Chequers on 4 January, three weeks before the first cabinet committee discussion of the Murdoch takeover, shows the meeting was held at his request.
Thatcher gave the meeting no publicity and instructed that the note should not leave No 10 Downing Street; the media tycoon later gave the impression in the newspaper’s own history that he had no contact with the prime minister ahead of Conservative approval of the purchase.
The Ingham note makes clear that Murdoch first tried to establish some political empathy with Thatcher by praising Ronald Reagan’s new administration before explicitly briefing her on his bid and future plans for Times Newspapers, including taking on the unions, introducing new technology and reducing the workforce by 25%.
Murdoch followed up the lunch with a handwritten “thank you” note two weeks later – “My dear Prime Minister” – telling her that “the field has contracted down to only two or three of us” and that the Times owners, the Thomson family, would “make up their minds in the next day or so”.
This direct personal lobbying was critical, as the government had the power to block his acquisition by referring the bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission because Murdoch already owned the Sun and the News of the World. The government’s subsequent refusal to do so paved the way for the creation of what is easily the largest newspaper group in Britain. Its market share was about 28% at the time, but its financial strength has helped it grow to the point where it accounts for about 37% of all newspaper copies sold.
The decision was one to be taken personally by the trade secretary, then John Biffen. However, when the matter was first discussed at the crucial cabinet economic strategy committee on 26 January, the recently released minutes show that Thatcher opened the discussion by highlighting the exemption under the Fair Trading Act 1973 that would allow Murdoch’s bid to avoid a referral.
Thirty years later, the circumstances surrounding Murdoch’s purchase of the Times titles came back into focus as his News Corporation bid for full control of BSkyB. Negotiations between News Corp and the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, led to a similar outcome – with the minister proposing to approve the merger in lieu of a full referral to the Competition Commission, in return for an agreement to spin out Sky News