And the government meanwhile was insulating Murdoch against business disaster. The London police force then was directly under Cabinet control, and its commitment of thousands of policemen to Wapping’s security was without precedent. It was defended as commitment against union intimidation—and with justice—but the workers being stripped of their livelihood also had something of a case. Even based on what was public at the time, some ministers were dubious about open-ended state support for a private firm that might be working to provoke the strike. According to Wyatt’s account, it was doing just that—but two decades were to pass before that saw the light of day.
In any event, the unions were crushed—with many cops injured—and in the end the Milken debts were paid off and Fox secured. Sikorsky got Westland; the Observer’s lone investigation into government manipulation of the deal was brushed aside. And, amid exchanges of admiration between Thatcher and Murdoch, her government survived. But not as long as she hoped it would.
Many of Murdoch’s best journalists were sick of getting political direction from Downing Street, and departed for the new Independent as soon as it opened for business in 1986.
But supposing nonetheless that their media dominance was invincible, Thatcher and Ingham grew overweening. Moderate, competent Conservatives were defenestrated, and a grossly regressive poll tax imposed. Attempts to collect it caused riots of a character quite new to modern Britain. Ingham responded with the absurd TINA mantra (There Is No Alternative), and spoon-fed a News Corp.-dominated press with assertions that Thatcher’s party was unanimous in support of the tax. Tony Bevins of The Independent (ex Times), in a prize-winning feat of shoe-leather reporting, showed that numerous Tory lawmakers loathed the poll tax and wanted a change of direction. In 1990, dissidents forced a leadership election and ended Mrs Thatcher’s regime.
But during her last days in office she had a visit from Murdoch— in deep travail again.
Two satellite television systems were then covering Britain: Murdoch’s Sky and British Satellite Broadcasting. Both had been launched with deficient business models—lacking systems for revenue-collection—and were bleeding money. Joining-up as a monopoly under News Corp. control offered prospects of survival. Much parliamentary opinion, however, wanted to risk well-deserved bankruptcy for both, and meanwhile ask the competition authorities to devise a non-monopolistic framework for satellite television.
Thatcher’s people just then were furious with the terrestrial channels for having reported Bevins’s Independent disclosures about the poll tax crisis. Sky News had ignored them—perhaps fortuitously, but Thatcher was delighted. She greeted Murdoch as producer of “the only unbiased news in the UK.” Accepting the compliment, he said her swift aid was essential for the salvation of such news. To live, Sky must take over its equally feeble rival; if exposed to any more competition both would expire. Among her last official acts the Prime Minister decreed that the competition authorities would not prevent Sky from becoming a monopoly.
And it continues as such today, though far more lucrative—causing some analysts to suggest its license should be modified to help competitors emerge. News Corp. dislikes the idea, as was made clear to Tony Blair in the 1990s, while Murdoch re-examined his interests in the politics of the democratic left—and the right’s poor prospects of retaining office.
This turnabout was painful for the diarist Wyatt, still loyal to the Tory cause. Writing on December 1, 1995, he fears Blair has agreed to leave Sky untouched, and that Murdoch’s gratitude for the Times Newspapers coup has faded. Then on March 17, 1997:
“Rupert has behaved like a swine and a pig. He doesn’t like backing losers … the Sun is backing Blair and there’ll be huge headlines across the front page tomorrow …”