Rupert Murdoch's secret battle with Downing Street

Rupert Murdoch's secret battle with Downing Street

Simon McBurney as Rupert Murdoch in The Loudest Voice (Credit: Sky)
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Stewart Purvis reveals how new documents illuminate the conflict between the media mogul and ex-prime minister

During these past 12 months Rupert Murdoch has been only half the man in the UK he used to be. But that’s only by one measure – Ofcom’s “share of references”, which calculates which news sources are consumed across different media. It was a year ago, in September 2018, that the then 87-year-old’s long association with Sky came to an end.

When his new ally Disney was defeated in a bidding war by Comcast for the shares in BSkyB that 21st Century Fox did not already own, he left that particular field of battle with £11.6bn to regroup in the US. His News UK company still owns the Times, Sunday Times and Sun newspapers and Wireless Group. So one of the most successful figures in commercial media for at least the past three decades hasn’t gone away – but the perception of his power is undoubtedly diminished.

Part of that perception has always been based on his access to British prime ministers, normally through the side or back door of 10 Downing Street, but on one memorable occasion, in 1995, a PM in waiting, Tony Blair, flew to a News Corporation conference in Australia. Murdoch joked that, if this flirtation were ever consummated, “Tony… I suspect we will end up making love like two porcupines - very, very carefully”.

A letter sent to John Major regarding
Rupert Murdoch

By contrast with the supportive Margaret Thatcher and the flirtatious Tony Blair, it is striking to see in Cabinet Office files for 1995, just released to the National Archives, what one of John Major’s officials proposes as the “stop Murdoch” plan.

These documents give fascinating insights to a time when Major wanted the political support of the Sun and Murdoch wanted a clear regulatory run to launch digital satellite television.

In the 1993 files there were such details as Major deciding “to discourage cabinet ministers from attending Rupert Murdoch’s 1 September jamboree”. The aggressive mood in Downing Street was partly explained by the cuttings in the file, which chronicle the attacks in the columns of the Sun: “Dithering Major”, “Pigmy PM”, “not up to the job”, “1,001 reasons why you are such a plonker John”, “A broken man,” “A discredited Prime Minister”.

The then-editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, said he once told Major on the phone, “I’ve got a large bucket of shit lying on my desk and tomorrow morning I’m going to pour it all over your head.”

By 1995, two voices told Major all was not lost, that there was still a chance Murdoch might yet bring his papers back behind the Conservatives. One was a legendary Murdoch fixer, Lord (Woodrow) Wyatt, who had earlier been a key go-between for Margaret Thatcher. He wrote to Downing Street, informing them that Murdoch “is coming round pretty well and certainly does not want a Blair victory, despite his flirting in Australia”.

John Major’s then Press secretary, Christopher Meyer, later the British ambassador to Washington, copied Wyatt’s note to the Prime Minister, adding that Murdoch’s papers, having given “generous space to Blair, have started to hedge their bets”.

If the unspoken implication of these messages was “careful you don’t upset him too much on broadcasting matters”, there was strong pushback from inside and outside Downing Street.

Major’s private secretary for home affairs, Racheal Reynolds, put forward a cross-media plan to make sure “that the 20% limit on ownership of ITN should be enforced and that we should signal our intention to ensure open access to satellite and cable television (the ‘stop Murdoch’ plan).”

Reynolds, remembered by colleagues as “very feisty”, also warned against policies that “would let the likes of Murdoch become even more powerful”.

Reynolds’ colleague in the Policy Unit Dominic Morris told Major that, unless they made digital terrestrial television a success, “Murdoch could eventually dominate British TV via satellite and his programmes on cable”. Morris warned that “public-interest broadcasting would be pushed into a ghetto”.

"Major… was deeply hostile to Murdoch, whose papers had been merciless"

A master of the accessible policy memo throughout a career that later took him to the BBC, ITC and Ofcom, Morris highlighted the importance of conditional access on digital satellite – and how Murdoch could not be allowed to have the “complete lock, which he had on analogue”. He asked if the Prime Minister was “‘content with the above approach?” Major gave his approval by circling the word “content”.

“The key battle is for control of the digital gateway into the home,” argued one other person with direct access to Major, the Director-General of the BBC – John Birt.

We learnt from Birt’s memoirs of a meeting with Major who “‘was deeply hostile to Murdoch, whose papers had been merciless at his expense”. And how the PM “went on to despair about the growth of satellite and its impact on Britain… Why did the BBC have to collaborate with Sky on sport?”

What the archives now reveal is a letter Birt sent to Major in July 1995 following a dinner with their wives in which the BBC Director-General forecast, with great prescience, the digital revolution that lay ahead and asked “How can Murdoch be stopped?”

He wrote that the most important of the radical implications of the digital revolution was “the monopolistic position in this new digital world that Rupert Murdoch is poised to win for himself, with hardly anyone seeming to appreciator his game plan”.

Had Murdoch or his senior executives seen the letter, they would probably observed the irony of what they saw as the head of a monopolistic BBC directly lobbying a PM who earlier had lobbied him not to co-operate on sport with BSkyB. In their mind, Birt and Murdoch were doing the same thing, trying to develop new markets for their organisations.

All was now set for a meeting between Major and Murdoch on 13 September 1995. Press secretary Christopher Meyer said: “We want Murdoch to leave Downing Street convinced that Blair is going to have a real fight on his hands.” Rachael Reynolds warned: “Just be aware if he says what a saviour he is.”

There is no account of the actual meeting in the files, but that’s not suspicious. About that time, I was invited to a one-to-one with Major in the Cabinet Room, where he asked what I would like the forthcoming legislation to say about the ownership of ITN. I told him and it duly became law. No record of that seems to exist either.

We can tell that Major wanted to keep lines of direct communication open to Murdoch because, when he wrote to him saying how much he had enjoyed their conversation, he sent a further invitation: “Norma and I would be delighted if you and Anna could come and have lunch one weekend
at Chequers.”

In 2016, Rupert Murdoch wrote to the Guardian, saying: “I have made it a principle all my life never to ask for anything from any prime minister.” In these newly released files there is no evidence to disprove that. But perhaps he doesn’t need to ask: politicians will have taken the trouble to find out what he wants and his executives can do any necessary asking for him.

For example, after the Murdoch meeting Major arranged for BSkyB’s CEO, Sam Chisholm, to meet the head of his Policy Unit to discuss “encryption and technology”.

Eventually, Major, following the advice of his Policy Unit and John Birt, imposed some regulatory controls on digital TV gatekeepers. But prime ministers can never forget that Murdoch’s editors always have those large buckets on their desks.

Two years later, the Sun attacked Major’s Government as “tired and divided” and proclaimed on the front page: “The Sun backs Blair.”

Stewart Purvis is a former editor-in-chief and Chief Executive of ITN. He is currently a non-executive director of Channel 4 and writes here in a personal capacity.