The Thatcher Years: How The Times and The Sunday Times told her story

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Far from being, as some docu-dramas and plays have depicted, little speeches in which Mrs Thatcher laid down the law to the Queen, what she said was usually an anodyne recitation of current business. This was to matter when a serious disagreement arose between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street over the issue of sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Mrs Thatcher opposed them, fearing making South Africa more of a pariah state would hold back progress towards reform. The Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, was under pressure from its leaders to support sanctions.

Murdoch And Me

The Palace did what it could to keep things together and in July , the Queen, almost unprecedentedly breaking her summer stay at Balmoral, decided to come up to London to save Commonwealth unity. The wording of the Palace statement was not, closely studied, a denial, though it intended to give the impression that it was.

Shea had indeed told the Sunday Times most of what it published, and had even had large sections of the full inside story though not the front page read to him. After frantic discussions, it was agreed between Heseltine and his counterpart at No. Instead, Heseltine hurried to the Queen at Windsor. This the Queen immediately did, by telephone to Chequers. Many people were naturally disposed to believe the Palace denial or apparent denial , which was repeated by Heseltine in a letter to the Times.

Much anger was hurled at the Sunday Times. It was clear to Mrs Thatcher, therefore, that there had been some truth in it. Despite his blunt, even brutal reputation, Rupert can sometimes take a long time to get to the point; this was one of these times. We talked about politics, satellite TV, Fleet Street—even the weather might have merited a mention.

Even though I knew the question was coming, I was still taken aback. I rambled on about not really having considered the possibility, the size of the challenge, and other banalities. He was as good as his word. The biggest plus about having Rupert Murdoch as your proprietor is that he has no great social aspirations in Britain.

He does not seek the approval of the Establishment, nor is he interested in their baubles, having turned down a knighthood and a peerage. This is a huge advantage for a newspaper editor out to make waves: when various parts of the Establishment objected to our coverage of the Thatcher government or the royal family or whatever powerful interest we had most recently upset, they often tried to work through Rupert to put pressure on me. He invariably resisted their blandishments.


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I grew to learn that you could count on Rupert in a tight spot, even when he did not agree with what you had done. The most he ever said was that maybe we had given it too much prominence and, in retrospect, he was probably right. When a constitutional crisis flared round our story that the Queen thought Mrs.

Thatcher was not showing enough compassion for the dispossessed in society, and there were calls for my head, Rupert was as solid as a rock. Even when he disagreed with my attack on the royal family for playing golf and going to nightclubs during the Gulf War, and supporters of the monarchy were baying for my blood, he never gave them any joy.


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In private, he leaves you in no doubt that he would sweep the royal family away tomorrow if he had the chance: he regards them as the apex of a class system that has held Britain back and slighted him on numerous occasions. He could also be robust with complaining advertisers. Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods department store in London, called me one night in the mids to complain about a story we had run criticizing the way he was renovating the house in Paris once occupied by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

I offered him space to put forth his point of view. He demanded a retraction and an apology. I refused. He threatened to withdraw all Harrods advertising from Times Newspapers. He hung up, somewhat mystified. A little later the phone rang again. It was John King, the chairman of British Airways.

A half-hour later the phone rang again. It was Rupert, calling from New York. This, I thought, could be a tough one. There was silence at the other end of the line. I contemplated whether it would be better to back down or resign and become an unlikely hero of the liberal left. Years later I visited the Windsor house in Paris. It seemed to me Mohamed had done a magnificent job of restoring the house, which was almost exactly as the Windsors had left it. But I did not regret my stance: once one advertiser knows you are a soft touch, they all do, and editing a paper free of commercial pressure becomes an impossibility.

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Anyway, once the ban was lifted, Harrods came back to The Sunday Times when it discovered no other paper could rival the impact of its advertising clout. My relations with Rupert remained cordial for a lot longer than they might have partly because he was not living in London. It was tough enough for him to keep tabs on everything when he was based in New York running his new American media interests, including the New York Post and New York magazine since sold , starting around , but at least New York is on the same information network as London.

When in the late 80s he moved to Los Angeles to supervise more closely his movie studio, Twentieth Century Fox, he found himself on another planet as far as the news agenda is concerned. When he called from L. There is a common myth among those who think Rupert Murdoch has too much power and influence: that he controls every aspect of his newspapers on three continents, dictating an editorial before breakfast, writing headlines over lunch, and deciding which politician to discredit over dinner. He has been known to do all three.

But he does not generally work like that: his control is far more subtle. For a start he picks as his editors people like me, who are mostly on the same wavelength as he is: we started from a set of common assumptions about politics and society, even if we did not see eye to eye on every issue and have very different styles. Then he largely left me to get on with my work. But you always have to take Rupert into account: he is too smart to ignore. The snobbery of his British enemies has led them to regard him as something of a colonial hick because of the racy, down-market image of his tabloids and his strong Australian accent.

They have had to learn the hard way that he is one of the smartest men in business, with a restless, ruthless brain that is more than a match for any British competition in newspapers or broadcasting. His mind is always buzzing, always up on the issues, and always original, which means his editors have to be on their toes if they are to keep up with him.

When I took the job of Sunday Times editor I imagined a short honeymoon before I would feel his wrath.

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In fact, he left me alone for most of the decade, keeping a wary eye on my progress from a distance, intervening only when he felt strongly about something. He never barked orders to change what I was planning for the front page; he was invariably complimentary about our story lineup and would usually finish his calls with his customary courtesy, by thanking me for all my hard work. He kept to the letter of his promises to Parliament of editorial independence when he bought Times Newspapers, consisting of The Times and The Sunday Times , in He had earlier acquired two British tabloids— The Sun and the News of the World —and, in , acquired the since folded Today.

Editorial freedom, however, has its limits: Even when I did not hear from him and I knew his attention was elsewhere, he was still uppermost in my mind. When we did talk he would always let me know what he liked and what he did not, where he stood on an issue of the time and what he thought of a politician in the news.

Such is the force of his personality that you feel obliged to take such views carefully into account. And why not? He is, after all, the owner. Rupert is a highly political animal: even meetings about some technical matter having to do with color printing or pagination would invariably begin with an exchange of views on the current political scene in America or Britain. Business and politics are his only two passions: art, music, hobbies, poetry, theater, fiction, even sports sailing may be an exception have no interest for him.

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He is fascinated by politics for its own sake—but also because politics affects the business environment in which he operates. Rupert expects his papers to stand broadly for what he believes in: right-wing Republicanism from America mixed with undiluted Thatcherism from Britain and stirred with some anti—British Establishment sentiments, as befits his colonial heritage.

The resulting mix is a radical-right dose of free-market economics, the social agenda of the Christian right, and hard-line conservative views on such subjects as drugs, abortion, law and order, and defense. He is far more right-wing than is generally thought, but will curb his ideology for commercial reasons thankfully, he realized that a Sunday Times which entirely reflected his far-right politics, especially on social issues, would lose readers. In the American presidential election his favorite for the Republican nomination was Pat Robertson, the right-wing religious fanatic who claims to speak in tongues and have direct access to God, takes credit for having persuaded the Lord to spare his headquarters from Hurricane Gloria, and believes in a Jewish money conspiracy.

Since the demise of Reagan and Thatcher, Rupert has found nobody to replace them in his affections on either side of the Atlantic. He supported Robert Dole in the presidential campaign without enthusiasm because he loathes Bill Clinton, but Dole is far too moderate a conservative for his tastes.

He regards him as a weak, indecisive man, not up to the job. Where political principle and business expediency clash, you can be pretty sure expediency will win. Rupert would have far less time for Blair if the Tory government were doing better. Yet he has cozied up to China, another evil Communist empire, in the 90s.

This has required a wrenching U-turn in his attitudes toward China since the mids, when Thatcher was negotiating with Beijing over the future of Hong Kong. Rupert wanted his papers to take a tough line to stiffen her resolve against China. There is no mystery about why Rupert has changed his tune: he will always moderate his political fundamentalism if it suits his business strategy. He had no business interests in the Soviet Union in the 80s; he is selling satellite TV to the Chinese in the 90s. But he is also under the influence of Anna, his strong-willed wife, who is a staunch Catholic.

This is just as well: given the kind of tabloids Rupert owns, many people would love to take revenge by revealing his infidelities. But I have never even heard a rumor of any. Rupert is actually not that interested in women. They talk regularly on the phone during the frequent times when they are far apart.

He does not take much notice of her views on the business he has ignored her pleas to stop the topless pictures in his London tabloids , but he will defer to her on family matters. And if Rupert was to fall under the proverbial bus tomorrow, many believe Anna rather than the children would come to the fore to try to fill his shoes in the company; she is certainly tough enough, though nobody is sure if she is ambitious enough. Late one night he told me he was considering becoming a Catholic.

He never raised the subject again—although some of his closest associates think he may have secretly turned Catholic. There were times when The Sunday Times reflected very little of what its owner thought, but it did so enough of the time for us not to fall out. I was able regularly to criticize Margaret Thatcher, even though he adored her. Rupert suffered our attacks on his hero in sullen silence because he knew Reagan had screwed up. He did not expect to see his particular views immediately reflected in the next edition of The Sunday Times after one of our many talks, though he would not have objected if they had been.

But he had a quiet, remorseless, sometimes threatening way of laying down the perimeters within which you were expected to operate. His editors have to become adept at reading Rupert Murdoch: stray too far too often from his general outlook and you will be looking for a new job. It can be strangely oppressive, even when you agree with him: the man is never far from your mind. Rupert dominates the lives of all his senior executives.

One who parted company from him 15 years ago confessed to me that he had only recently stopped dreaming about him. He still pops up from time to time in mine. His first love is tabloid journalism witness his willingness to sustain open-ended losses at the New York Post because of the enjoyment the paper gives him ; it is what gets his juices going, and he has a brilliant populist sense for it. He has a less certain touch for broadsheets.

It has taken him almost 15 years to make a circulation success of The Times —and then only by spending tens of millions on price-cutting, which means it is still accumulating substantial losses. Though it would grieve him to think so, he has become an old-fashioned Times proprietor of the type he used to sneer at, keeping the paper going at a loss for years because of the power and prestige it brings its owner.

We were always broadly in agreement about the general direction of The Sunday Times. Any pressure he did exert, however, was in a down-market direction: he complained often that there was too much politics in the paper, that it was too issue-driven, and that it needed more human-interest stories and personality pieces. Sometimes the best reaction was to nod in agreement, then do nothing, in the hope he would forget; it usually worked.

A confidant once explained that Rupert sometimes counted on his best people not to do his bidding—it allowed him to make broad attacks, which he enjoys. Rupert gives his broadsheet editors far more latitude than his tabloid ones. He dislikes Europe, for example, which he associates with socialism, and rarely visits it even as a tourist. He is brutal with his tabloid editors, who live in fear of his calls.

I only ever had a few harsh words with Rupert on the phone in 11 years; he nearly always treated me with respect, courtesy, and sometimes even kindness. Others were not so lucky. The abuse did not get better with time. A depressed Kelvin called me in February In the summer of , Kelvin finally snapped: in the middle of a particularly bruising face-to-face encounter with Rupert in his office, Kelvin simply stood up, put on his coat, and walked out.

His resignation followed within hours, by fax from home. Rupert got his way and treated Kelvin with more respect after that. But things were never quite the same again: the whipping boy had finally stood up to the boss—and the boss was unsettled by it. Rupert made sure the company picked up the medical bills.

There was an element of the bully in this: Rupert ranted at Kelvin and others because he knew he could get away with it. I think Rupert sensed that I would be out the door before he finished his sentence if he talked to me in the same way; he never did. I always made it clear that if he was unhappy with my editorship I would not fight him to keep it. But I would not take being scolded like a schoolboy.

Telephone terrorism is his weapon of choice to make sure his influence extends throughout his worldwide empire. He was often grumpy with me on the phone for no particular reason—and sometimes downright curmudgeonly, especially when the jet lag was bad. His global flying schedule added to his bad-tempered calls. He takes sleeping pills prescribed by a British doctor to help cope with the time-zone changes. But if they helped him to sleep on planes they did not make him any more cordial when he hit the phone on arrival. These were the calls I came to dread, not because I feared their consequences but because they were unpleasant and pointless.

It was never quite clear why he was in such a bad mood—whether I or Kelvin or some other editor was the cause of it or whether it was because he was dog-tired from his perpetual globe-trotting. There were simply times when he relished giving his underlings a bad time. You sensed the bleak atmosphere the moment you lifted the phone. He was determined to be miserable. He punctuated such calls with long silences—traps inviting you to say something else with which he could disagree. These calls were not designed to build morale; they left me angry and depressed.

It worked. I remember one call when he seemed to have nothing to say—certainly nothing nice-and I just let the silence run. It became a test of wills, with the cost of a transatlantic call adding up as neither of us said anything. I could have gone and made a cup of tea. I never got the silent treatment again. There is a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality to Rupert: despite the bad-tempered calls, there were many times when he was courteous, even charming.

Almost every time he called he began by asking if he was interrupting something important; of course, there is nothing more important to a courtier than a call from the Sun King. I learned later that he had come across to see me, looked at the notice, and gone for a chat with the deputy editor, who advised him that the sign was not meant for him. Those times when he was in London which became increasingly infrequent as his American interests expanded had everybody on their toes. He would spend Saturdays going through budgets or administration with his managers, then wander across to my office as the first edition came off the presses.

He would lay the paper on the lectern and noisily turn each page, stabbing his finger at various stories or circling them with his pen.

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Rupert always did. Sometimes he would leave you wondering if you had done anything right; it cast a cloud over your whole life. It was part of his management style that he could leave you in a deep depression or on top of the world. I grew to resent that one man could have such an effect on me. In the early years we had been quite close. During the mids I spent several Christmas Days in Aspen, Colorado, with the Murdoch family, who always made me feel welcome. Their Aspen house is a gargantuan alpine ski lodge with a swimming pool in the living room, but Christmas Day dinner was a delightful, low-key affair with only the immediate family present; I felt privileged to be there.

The children—Elisabeth, Lachlan, and James—never behaved like spoiled rich kids and were always fun to be with. They are a happy family. Rupert enjoys spending time with his children when he can, though the phone never stops ringing to drag him away. Meal-times are informal and often the venue for spirited debate on politics and social matters. The family is not intimidated by him. Rupert has long regarded Lachlan as heir apparent, but Elisabeth has let it be known she wants to be in the running, too.

Rupert, having dismissed the idea that his daughter could succeed him, now likes the rivalry between them. It was always a competitive household. When we played charades after dinner, the most obscure phrases—some in Latin! The same competitive instincts emerged on the ski slopes. Both Rupert and I are enthusiastic if clumsy skiers. He had an obsession with finding the most difficult route down a slope. Once, he took a gang of his executives from Australia down a particularly challenging run; though most could barely ski, none said so for fear of losing face with the boss.

I slipped away and took a fast, easy route to the bottom. When I looked up it was like the Battle of the Somme: bodies and skis everywhere, with Rupert at the bottom shouting at them all to get a move on. On another occasion we took a Sno-Cat and went in search of powder off-trail on the back of Aspen Mountain; we spent most of the day on our backs or struggling to stay upright in the soft, champagne snow.

I made it down one slope that had a small river at the bottom obscured by a recent snowfall. Rupert came hurtling after me. It was like a scene from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and I collapsed in uncontrollable laughter. I then pulled myself together and rushed to dig him out before he suffocated. For Rupert, everything in life is a competition. Gus Fischer told me of the time Rupert took him sailing round Sardinia on his huge new yacht.

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