Sunday, 15 March 2009

John Major wanted to ban or curb Murdoch

I am very much enjoying reading the Chris Mullin diaries, and will write more about them after I finish the book.

There are several small, intriguing revelations throughout the book. Mullin is much respected across the House, and John Major pops up several times, once borrowing the author's Listerine in the gents' loos at the Commons. On a separate occasion (location undisclosed, in what sounds like a slightly less informal encounter), they share a lot of common ground in their views on the media.

Tuesday 5 December
A quiet chat with John Major who confirmed that he had contemplated banning foreign ownership of British media. He said he had been provoked by the continual attacks on him in the Murdoch press and in the Telegraph, which is owned by Conrad Black, a Canadian. I asked if he had commissioned any work on the subject and he said he had, but it was buried with the papers of the last government. He added 'I'm not interested in any blow that isn't fatal'. Me neither.
(page 143), A View From the Foothills, by Chris Mullin (Profile)

I think the interesting revelation is that Major had commissioned work on how foreign ownership might be curtailed. (I was not aware of it anyway). It would be interesting to find out more about how far that got. I haven't seen this mentioned in the reviews of the book, but perhaps somebody should dig further into it.

Mullin later, while attending a Commonwealth summit as Africa Minister, reports Major's view to Tony Blair (page 433), and finds he has some sympathy with it too, when sounding off in private at least.

The Man laments the wickedness of the media and interference by Murdoch. I mention that John Major once thought seriously about breaking up the empires - one daily, one Sunday, everything else on the market - but dropped the idea because those queuing to buy are at least as unsavoury as existing owners.

'Oh I don't know', he says, 'There are Germans and other Europeans who would be much better'. I press the point: 'You would have to strike with deadly force, a week after we win a third term'. He is about to reply, but stops himself. He did remark firmly that the owners of the Mail would never be allowed to get their hands on the Telegraph.

That was never likely to amount to anything. But, in his interview in today's Sunday Times (Murdoch), Mullin does mention Blair's robust defence of Mullins' right to campaign against Murdoch against a complaint from Piers Morgan, who wrote to Blair in 1995 when the 29 year old editor of the News of the World. The letter is quoted in Morgan's own diary.

"Dear Tony, Idiots like Mullin shouting their mouths off about 'loathsome tabloids' and my owner in such an offensive manner do nothing to help us forge the relationship between us and the Labour Party that you and I wish for. If he is like this before you get into power, what on earth can we expect afterwards?".

But Blair replies praising Mullin as being one of "Labour's strongest campaigners and has unwavering tenacity in pursuing causes about which he feels strongly", and notes that is in the nature of politics that Labour backbenchers may have different views to his own.

Amusingly, Mullin reports in his own diary that he finds out about this exchange a decade later when flicking through Morgan's diaries at Ottakers in Sunderland, presumably in preference to shelling out for them.


johnrentoul said...

Well spotted, Sunder. Still waiting eagerly for my copy - which year was the Major conversation?
John Rentoul

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. December 2000