How is a poor citizen to judge the actions of his Government in modern times?
I use the word “poor” not to indicate the citizen's economic state, but to draw attention to the fact that most of his Government's dealings with other citizens, and especially those who are in “business”, are completely hidden from the citizen. Sometimes, the citizen is given information by his Government that is a deliberate lie, but which the citizen has no way of discovering is a lie.
Until some years have passed and the Government;s secret documents become available to the public. Or someone leaks the information.
In 1981, an Australian (later an American) newspaper magnate, Rupert Murdoch, set out to buy two of Britain's most famous newspapers, The Times and The Sunday Times.
Both were then owned by Lord [Roy]Thomson of Fleet, a Canadian who had made a great deal of money from the business of setting up television stations in Britain. It was he who coined the term, “a licence to print money”, to describe how, if one obtained a licence from the Government to run a TV station, one could make so much money that it would appear as if as if one was in possession of one's own Royal Mint.
At the time Mr Murdoch wanted to acquire The Times and The Sunday Times, he already owned then two highest selling newspapers in Britain – The Sun, a daily, and The News of the World, a Sunday newspaper. This made it likely that Murdoch's bid for the higher quality Times newspapers would be referred to the to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
This Commission's responsibility is to ensure that no business group can corner the opinion market in the country by owning too many of the media that disseminate opinion. Indeed, with the acquisition of The Times and The Sunday Times, Murdoch's empire obtained possession of 28% of the newspaper market in Britain. (This had grown to 37% by the time The News of the World was closed down last year because of its indulgence in illegal phone hacking.)
Murdoch realised that pressure would be put on the British Government not to allow him to acquire such a huge slice of the opinion-making machinery in Britain, as it would place him in a position to dictate public policy to the elected government of the day.
For which Government would take the risk of carrying out policies that were capable of antagonising a newspaper empire that controlled over third of the newspaper readership in the country?
So, to avoid an examination of his bid by the Monopolies Commission what did Murdoch do?
According to documents published in the London Guardian, Murdoch made a direct approach to Mrs Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister of the time.
Meetings between the British Prime Minister and important people, including businessmen, are normally announced to the public, though details are not necessarily given. But the meeting with Murdoch was kept a complete secret. As a result of the secret meeting, Murdoch's bid was NOT referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission at all.
The result was that the Government looked elsewhere whilst Murdoch created what the Guardian describes as “easily the largest newspaper group in Britain.... [with a] financial strength [that] has helped it grow to the point where it accounts for about 37% of all newspaper copies sold” in the UK.
Thatcher's private files reveal that a long note – marked by her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, as "commercial in confidence" – was made of a Sunday lunch at the British Prime Minister's country residence of Chequers on 4 January, three weeks before the first cabinet committee discussion of the Murdoch takeover.
The note shows the meeting was held at Murdoch's request. Not only did Thatcher give the meeting no publicity but she instructed that the note about it “should not leave No 10 Downing Street” (her office.) Murdoch too later gave the impression, in the Times' own history, that he had had no contact with the Prime Minister ahead of the approval of the purchase.
The Guardian report says: “The … 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”.
He said things that Thatcher would have found very palatable – he said he would take on the trade unions by introducing new technology and reducing the workforce by 25%. Thatcher was herself to take on the trade unions, especially, the miners – naturally, with the full support of Murdoch's newspapers.
The editor of The Sunday Times at the time, Harold Evans, who had tried to form a consortium to buy the papers, which became an irrelevance when the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was not allowed to adjudicate over Murdoch's bid, descried the secret meeting between Murdoch and Thatcher as “squalid”.
Since Murdoch acquired the papers, and also obtained a large slice of TV viewer-ship through BSkyB (which runs Sky TV) Murdoch has become a colossus on the British political scene. Prime Ministers and Ministers eat out of his hand. Tony Blair phoned him several times before deciding to take part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. David Cameron took as former Murdoch editor, Andy Coulson, with him into Number 10 Dawning Street as his Press Secretary.
(Coulson has since left – in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal).
What has shocked the British public is the fact that on an issue as sensitive as media ownership. Mrs Thatcher reached a private agreement with Murdoch at a secret meeting where no member of her own Cabinet was present. Selling the agreement to the rest of the Cabinet would have proved no difficulty. Thatcher would simply have dismissed those who opposed her as “wets” and sacked them! And the British public would never have known the true reason.
The lesson? We should take everything our Governments tell us with – a hefty pinch of salt.