May I just add two end-of-the-week post-scripts to my earlier Corner piece on the release of documents from Mrs. Thatcher’s personal files from 1981? The first is a correction: I mistakenly wrote that strong opposition to Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of the London Times in that year came from, among others, its editor, Harold Evans. That is almost the opposite of the truth. I was confusing two separate crises over Murdoch and the Times. In fact, Murdoch hired Evans as editor when he acquired the paper in 1981 but fired him one year later. Harry Evans gives a lively account of why and how in the new introduction to his book, “Good Times, Bad Times,” republished last year available here.
William Shawcross describes the same events from a standpoint friendlier to Murdoch in his 1997 biography of the tycoon, titled simply Murdoch, which probably remains the best biography of the tycoon, though it is inevitably behind the latest news. I haven’t been able to find an online passage from the biography; but here are two installments of Shawcross’s most recent thoughts on the man himself, first here, and then here.
Read the accounts of both men; they are riveting. On the precise matter of Harry’s attitude to the Murdoch takeover in 1981, I think it’s fair to say, as Harry argues in the introduction, that he has regretted his failure to oppose the Murdoch takeover vigorously ever since, and bitterly so since his defenestration. But make up your own mind.
The second postscript is an irritable and mean-minded complaint. It concerns two articles in the issue of the Daily Beast that came out the day after my Corner posting on the same matter: namely, the memorandum from press secretary Bernard Ingham summarizing the “secret” lunch in 1981 at Chequers attended by Thatcher and Murdoch.
Rivals and critics of Murdoch have long maintained that Thatcher and Murdoch had done a deal exchanging her government’s approval of his Times takeover for the political support of his media empire. But no one had known about this “secret” lunch before. So journalists licked their lips in anticipation of finding their suspicions of a dishonorable Murdoch-Thatcher deal confirmed. As the Foundation’s archivist wrote, however:
What is most striking perhaps in the document is what is not there. [My italics.] There is no blueprint for Wapping, a plan to defang the print unions. There is no bargaining for support, Murdoch perhaps offering the backing of his papers in return for a waiver of the requirement in the Fair Trading Act 1973 that all major newspaper takeovers be submitted to the MMC. Many people have suspected that some such deal must have been struck, but the impression from this document is quite different.
This is pretty conclusive; it’s supported by the attached memorandum; and it surely counts as news. Otherwise, why would the Beast run two pieces on it? But how do those stories handle it?
Well, neither story exactly stresses the fact that no smoking gun has been found, which is really the newsworthy point. Sure, it’s a Man Pats Dog report that exonerates rather than condemns, but since exoneration is the surprising conclusion here — the conclusion that the neither hacks nor readers were expecting– it should either lead the piece or come just below the “secret” character of the lunch. It doesn’t.
Newsweek reporter Mike Giglio, though, plays the story itself pretty straight. He draws together several threads to suggest that Thatcher might have deduced from Murdoch’s briefing that the mounting losses of the Times and Sunday Times could be cited to justify the government’s fast-tracking approval of his takeover. But Giglio concedes that “the issue is not addressed in the meeting.”
The other report, by Peter Jukes, cites the secret lunch and then adds simply: “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.”
Well, maybe that’s what happened. But it’s not what the document says happened — which is what is supposed to count in journalism. Moreover, a second document released simultaneously with the Ingham memorandum — the minutes of the Cabinet committee responsible for any decision on the proposed takeover — shows ministers seriously discussing whether or not to refer it to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and, at that stage, leaving the matter open.
In other words: Here is one of those rare occasions in journalism when a reporter could quite legitimately follow the template “Nothing to see here, folks, move along please, small lunch in the Home Counties, not many eaten.” The Beast’s response: Print the legend.
Pretty beastly, eh? I keep reading in the mainstream media that this kind of thing is typical of Fox News. But whenever I come across it first hand, it’s usually when I’m reading the most respectable left-wing outlets.