Rupert Murdoch asked to see Harold Wilson in Downing Street in January 1976 to seek a relaxation of the Labour government's pay policy...just one of the private conversations which Murdoch held over the last four decades with Prime Ministers of the day.
Hitherto secret meetings which have now been revealed in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry include not only the meeting with Wilson but also a lunch at Chequers with Margaret Thatcher in January 1981 to discuss his bid to buy Times Newspapers and a second previously undisclosed meeting between David Cameron and Murdoch after News Corporation made its aborted bid to take full control of BSkyB.
What is not in doubt is that Murdoch’s diary of engagements and telephone conversations with successive British Prime Ministers would – if it could be obtained – make a prize exhibit at the Leveson Inquiry.
As yet more details emerge of Murdoch’s covert discussions over both the ownership and operation of his media companies the greater becomes the necessity for Lord Justice Leveson to draw lessons from the collusion of the past to produce a framework of safeguards for the future.
Perhaps no other proprietor of a leading UK company could claim to have equalled the unprecedented access which Murdoch has been afforded by both Conservative and Labour governments; certainly no other media baron has matched his enduring ability to exploit the political patronage of his newspapers to help lever favourable commercial outcomes for his press and television interests.
First-hand accounts which have emerged in newly-released archives give an insight into Murdoch’s modus operandi and underline the importance of the Leveson Inquiry fulfilling its remit to ensure that the “future conduct of relations between politicians and the press” is policed more effectively in the future.
Murdoch sought Harold Wilson’s help in 1976 because he wanted a relaxation of the government’s pay policy in order to increase production of the Sun. Wilson refused to intervene but dictated his own note of the conversation to “avoid any possible misunderstanding”. Murdoch had “gently tried to suggest” that the then Employment Secretary Michael Foot was no friend of the newspaper industry.
Bernard Ingham, the Downing Street press secretary, sat in on Margaret Thatcher’s lunch with Murdoch at Chequers in 1981. He marked his note of their conversation “commercial – in confidence” and wrote that in accordance with Mrs Thatcher’s wishes the attached note “has not gone outside No.10”.
Murdoch – who later denied in the official history of The Times that he had ever discussed his bid with Mrs Thatcher – made great play at the lunch of his plans to take on the print unions and the need to “crack a particularly tough nut in the form of chapel leadership of the clerical staff.”
Mrs Thatcher wished Murdoch well in his bid and his plans for “improved arrangements in Fleet Street affecting manning and the introduction of new technology”.
According to the press secretary there was no mention of Murdoch promising his newspapers would support Mrs Thatcher’s curbs on the trade unions but Ingham’s note provides the first tangible insight into the close alignment between her own political agenda and Murdoch’s commercial objectives.
Almost two decades later there must have been a similar – but as yet undisclosed – conversation in advance of Tony Blair’s decision to agree to a little-noticed last-minute government amendment to the 1999 Employment Relations Act to give a limited degree of protection to independent unions. The concession gave Murdoch the chance to continue his refusal to recognise trade unions such as the National Union of Journalists and instead he used the opportunity to establish an in-house union at Wapping, the News International Staff Association.
As events have shown the declarations made since David Cameron promised in July 2011 that ministers would record all their meetings with media proprietors have made a mockery of the need for transparency.
Lord Justice Leveson should have no truck with ministers’ lists which simply identify who, when and where they met and seek to hide behind a catch-all description like “general discussion”.
An effective code of conduct must require ministers, party leaders and shadow ministers to list not only the date and nature of meetings and social engagements but also the purpose of discussions and any outcome.
Nicholas Jones has submitted a personal evidence statement to the Leveson Inquiry in support of his suggestions for a code of conduct to regulate the relationships between ministers and media proprietors (details of which were included in A Chance for Change published by the CPBF). Jones hopes his evidence statement – Rupert Murdoch’s enduring political influence: from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron (...following in the footsteps of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell) – will be considered during module three of the inquiry, the relationship between press and politicians.