Rupert Murdoch has apparently lost a great deal of his power of memory, but nature has compensated by endowing him with a vivid imagination. He can surely deploy his new gift in the service of Fox movies. There is the great scene he pitched to Lord Justice Leveson on Wednesday morning where the editor of the Times enters left, closes the door behind him and begs: “Look, tell me what you want to say, what do you want me to say, and it need not leave this room and I’ll say it.” And our hero proprietor, so famously fastidious about such matters, has to tell Uriah Heep: “That is not my job.”
And thus, children, was how Mr KR Murdoch honoured the promises of editorial independence that enabled him to avoid the Monopolies and Mergers Commission over his bid for Times Newspapers in 1981. As the editor in question, I am not able to compete with Murdoch in fabrication – he has had a lifetime of experience – but I do happen to have retained my memory of the year editing the Times, made notes, kept documents and even had the effrontery to write a whole bestselling book about it in 1983, called Good Times, Bad Times.
It has gone unchallenged for 30 years in its detailed account of precisely how Murdoch did break all five of the crucial pledges, did press for adopting his rightwing views, did want to know why we reported the Treasury statistics that the recession continued when the government had previously said it had ended.
When counsel waved the book in front of him, Murdoch wanted everyone to know he had not read it. He could not remember the account therein, quoting the news editor Fred Emery who told how Murdoch had sent for him and remarked that the promises of editorial independence “weren’t worth the paper they were written on”.
Of course, he’d promised not to send for staffers behind the back of the editor: he had only recently sent for the chief editorial writer again to press his own views, but not to tell the editor he was doing so. Counsel did not have time to pursue Murdoch’s phantom memory, nor question him on the lie he retailed to the Times historian that he never metMargaret Thatcher secretly during the bidding for Times Newspapers in 1980.
There is a pattern to the Murdoch sagas. He responds to serious criticism by a biting wisecrack or diversionary personal attack. What is denied most sharply invariably turns out to be irrefutably true. As with the hacking saga, so with my charges.
Murdoch is unlucky that his poor memory has been overtaken by documentation. On 16 March 2012, the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge released two discomfiting documents from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation. They give the lie to the official history of the Times from 1981–2002. The historian engaged by the Times, Graham Stewart, wrote that Murdoch and Thatcher “had no communication whatsoever during the period in which the Times bid and referral was up for discussion”.
On the contrary, the documents reveal that on 4 January 1981, the prime minister and Murdoch had an extraordinary secret lunch at Chequers. The record of the “salient points” of the meeting by No 10′s press officer, Bernard Ingham, testifies that, in accordance with Mrs Thatcher’s wishes, he would not let his report go outside No 10, which is to say ministers would not be briefed on the meeting.
It must be galling for Stewart that the source he relied on for the falsehood in his history was the man who engaged him to write it. The meeting that Stewart writes never took place was highly improper. Had this secret meeting come out at the time, it would have destroyed Murdoch’s chances of acquiring Times Newspapers, the seminal event of his ascent in Britain. Moreover, Ingham’s “note for the record” reeks of cover-up in triplicate. It bears some parsing.
First, the pretence is that Murdoch was afforded a private meeting with Thatcher so she could be briefed on the takeover battle. That’s absurd enough, given the coverage in the press and the responsibilities of the Department of Trade. The larger absurdity is that the prime minister’s redundant “briefing” is being done by only one bidder, and by one who has an urgent interest in rubbishing his competitors. Interestingly, Murdoch’s list of rivals makes no mention of someone Stewart refers to as making a “serious offer”: Vere Harmsworth, the third Lord Rothermere, the most formidable of the newspaper owners whose great-uncle Lord Northcliffe owned the Times between 1908 and 1922, a newspaper genius whose mind failed him at the end.
Murdoch also chose not to inform the prime minister of the bid by the Sunday Times’ management buyout team, which submitted its offer to the Thomson Organisation on 31 December 1981. The monetary amount of £12m was the same. He conflates the bid by the profitable Sunday Times editors and managers with the less credible bid by journalists of the loss-making Times.
Second, Ingham’s note is obviously drafted to deal with the eventuality that the clandestine meeting would one day come to light. On that account, it is ludicrous. We are asked to believe that there was no mention at the lunch of the clear legal requirement for Murdoch’s bid to be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
The prime minister had a duty to remind him of the laws she had sworn to honour and enforce. Did she not emit at least a polite cough? If she did not, she was uncharacteristically negligent. And if she did murmur something, why did Ingham choose not to record it? Sir Bernard is alas unable to help us with anything. He has no memory of the meeting. Amnesia seems to be catching.
As the narrative in this book makes clear, it is significant that in the crucial cabinet meeting three weeks later it was Thatcher who claimed that the fine print of the act would exempt Murdoch from its provisions on the grounds that both papers were unprofitable. I relate in my book’s chapter entitled “Biffen’s Missing Millions” that this statement was not true of the Sunday Times. Indeed, one of the unremarked ironies in Ingham’s account of the meeting is Murdoch’s enthusiasm for the success of the paper: “Even at the depths of a recession, this newspaper was turning down advertising.” And “the market clearly permitted” an increase in advertising rates.
Murdoch’s performance before Leveson and his myth about me suggests that he might do well on the road as the man with the most convenient memory in the world.
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