During research into the 1989-1990 Thatcher Cabinet papers, recently released into the National Archives, I have discovered documents which nobody else seems to have noticed. They tell what really happened during a landmark period in the debate about the future of British television. I’ve written articles, based on the documents, for the Royal Television Society magazine ‘Television’ and for the newsletter of the ITN 1955 Club. I have merged them here into this blogpost.
In a classic sketch on the late 1980s ITV satirical puppet show ‘Spitting Image’ the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was dining in a restaurant with her male Cabinet colleagues.
Waitress: Would you like to order, sir?
Thatcher: Yes. I will have the steak.
Waitress: How would you like it?
Thatcher: Oh, raw, please.
Waitress: And what about the Vegetables?
Thatcher: Oh, they’ll [the Cabinet] have the same as me!
The Thatcher Cabinet papers for 1989-90, just released into the National Archives, show that when it came to broadcasting policy the Prime Minister got increasingly frustrated with the vegetables when they showed an appetite for not wanting the same as her.The papers recording the internal debates about what became the 1990 Broadcasting Act include Prime Ministerial hand-written comments such as ‘this is ridiculous’ and that’s just what she said about her own side.
The 1988 White Paper had set out the Thatcherite stall with a radical package of change for British broadcasting .The regulator, the IBA, was to be replaced and ITV licenses were to be awarded by competitive tender. In the months of lobbying and debate before the White Paper became a Bill and then an Act, the Prime Minister achieved these and more ambitions; a quota of 25% for independent production, the creation of an extra ‘taste and decency’ regulator, the abolition of the Radio Times-TV Times listings duopoly, the removal of ITN from ITV control and the sell-off of BBC transmission.
But despite full-blooded support from her Chancellor Nigel Lawson before he resigned in October 1989 she was unable to force the BBC down the road to subscription and Channel Four towards privatisation – two issues that hadn’t exactly gone away 25 years later.
The papers reveal ministers pushed back on a range of issues; Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke and Scottish Minister Ian Lang opposed her reluctance to require regional news on Channel 3 to be ‘high quality’. Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind had strong views on funding Gaelic broadcasting. None of them overturned the Thatcher view but Douglas Hurd and then David Waddington, the Home Secretaries in charge of broadcasting policy, were more successful, to the frustration of Number Ten. A regular flow of dissenting letters from the Home Office prompted the Prime Minister and her advisers to write acerbic comments on them and about them.
Asked ‘are you content with the Home Secretary’s comments’ on the powers of the proposed extra regulator, the Broadcasting Standards Council, Mrs Thatcher was clearly not. ‘If the broadcasting authorities are only to have regard to the BSC there was no point in setting up the BSC! ‘Having regard’ means able to ignore for flimsy reasons.The broadcasters don’t like the BSC’.
Professor Brian Griffiths, her adviser on broadcasting, regularly wrote comments such as ‘the BBC management has clearly been getting at Home Office Ministers .The BBC has plenty of fat and we should help them get rid of it’. It was ‘nothing less than astonishing’ to Griffiths when Hurd’s team wanted to back down in a dispute with C4 over governance structures. ‘The powerful Channel Four lobby (Sir Richard Attenborough, Michael Grade etc) has clearly been getting at the Home Secretary’. Channel Four’s counter-proposals were ‘absolutely outrageous’ .. simply confirms Rupert Murdoch’s definition of public service broadcasting as ‘something run for the benefit of the benefit of the people who provide it rather than the viewer’.Thatcher accepted a compromise but later when C4 pushed back on another issue and this time Hurd’s successor Waddington compromised, she responded ’this is ridiculous’.
When told of the threat that if the Government did not back down, ‘Attenborough and maybe others will resign’,she replied; ‘Then so be it. Parliament decides, not Channel 4’.In the end Parliament decided in Channel Four’s favour on that one.
Thatcher’s Political Secretary, John Whittingdale, two and a half decades later the DCMS Secretary, wrote that Waddington’s response on impartiality was ‘extremely disappointing’. The BBC and Channel Four were public broadcasters in a privileged position and ‘they have consistently abused this’. His Prime Minister double-underlined his last three words.
In these papers there is nothing to contradict Rupert Murdoch’s statement in 2016 that ‘I have made it a principle all my life never to ask for anything from a Prime Minister’.That may be because Thatcher and Lawson were always sensitive to the needs of satellite broadcasters .They opposed the ‘listed events’ clause. He said it ‘unfairly protects the BBC and IBA against competition from subscription channels’, she said ‘my sympathies are with the Chancellor’. But live coverage of the major sporting events on the list remains exclusive to terrestrial broadcasters to this day.
The main meat and drink of the policy debate were the details of the new licensing regime for ITV and the Number Ten gatekeepers were kept busy with the companies’ attempts at lobbying.
Did the Prime Minister still wish to meet the Chairman of LWT, Christopher Bland, who is ‘often mentioned for bigger jobs in broadcasting’ to discuss his proposals for broadcasting? ’No’.(Sir Christopher Bland,who died in January 2017,did indeed go on to bigger jobs,chairing the BBC and BT)
But yes she would see Sir Alastair Burnet who wanted ITV to be forced to give up control of ITN and had sent the Prime Minster his proposals for ITN becoming the holder of a commercial night-time franchise starting at 10pm. The Prime Minister had commented; ‘Has the Home Secretary seen this paper.It is most impressive’. The paper was said to be ‘Alastair Burnet’s own work and is not yet formal ITN policy. It does however seem to represent thinking in ITN. Alastair Burnet is anxious that the paper should be kept to a close circle’.The ITV companies had no idea Burnet had done this.
In the seven page paper Burnet listed the ills of the current system as they affected ITN and then proposed a solution: ‘a separate Through-The-Night’ franchise on ITV-1’. ITN would be given control of the programming between 10pm and 6am and the advertising revenue, particularly the valuable ads in the centre break of News at Ten, would more than cover ITN’s budget. For ITN it would be ‘an overdue release from colonial status within ITV’.
Burnet made a nod towards Thatcher’s wish for more competition in broadcasting by arguing that never before had news ‘offered to take the risk of living on its own earnings..how much more competitive can one get’. This was one of the many sentences the Prime Minister underlined. Burnet suggested that if ITN were given control of News at Ten; ‘ITN will be glad to tender for the 5.45 news slot, and, from a secure base, is confident of going any competitor a beating’.
The documents show how Thatcher’s team at Downing Street tried to get the the Home Office, which was in charge of broadcasting policy, to follow up on the plan.
Her Press Secretary,Bernard Ingham, told her private office to pass on that ‘The Prime Minister has read and underlined the attached note and she had commented ‘Has Douglas Hurd seen this paper.It is most impressive.’ To underline its importance Thatcher’’s Principal Private Secretary handwrote ‘the underlining is the PM’s’.The plan was taken seriously but nothing ever came of it.
Another example of Burnet’s remarkable access is that in July 1988 he organised for the new chairman of ITN, George Russell, to have a first meeting with the Prime Minister and accompanied him to it. A confidential note of the meeting recorded;
‘The Prime Minister asked Mr Russell point blank ‘What do you want from Government?’
Mr Russell: ‘We have nothing to ask of you’.
Apparently this was an ‘ideal note’ on which to end the meeting. The Government later promoted George Russell to be the Chairman of the broadcasting regulator. He persuaded the Government to stipulate a quality threshold for bids in the auction.
What the 1989 documents reveal are two previously secret papers that may have helped pave the way for that compromise.The crown jewel is a simple two-page hand-written ‘Private and Confidential’ note to the Prime Minister from her ‘Willie’. William Whitelaw had resigned as Deputy Prime Minister after suffering a stroke at the end of 1987. A Cumbrian by adoption,Lord Whitelaw, as he had become, was a strong supporter of the ITV service for the Borders.
On the 9th June 1989 he wrote on House of Lords notepaper;
I apologise for bothering you when you have so many major problems confronting you. But I feel I would be letting you down if I did not tell you at once of my deep anxiety about future Broadcasting policy. If the leaks about the Cabinet Committee are correct -they are certainly widespread- I must stress that I would be horrified and deeply antagonistic if franchises were automatically to go to the highest bidder without clear safeguards . I am convinced that any such course inevitably leads to a major loss of quality in TV programmes. I cannot believe it would be right to sacrifice quality in the hope of greater financial gain. It would certainly be very unpopular in many quarters. Sorry to bother you.
Another interesting intervention had come earlier that year from another loyal Thatcher ally who was also not convinced that free market competition would necessarily mean better television. Press Secretary Bernard Ingham advised; ’Politically you are most vulnerable in the area of quality. You, of all people, must not go down in history as the person who ruined British television’.