If Margaret Thatcher the party leader was undisputedly first in one subject, it would be on her approach to the media – particularly the print media. Others coached and briefed her, but someone had to provide the end product. Thatcher and her team went out of their way to get the papers on side, and their landing of the Murdoch flagship tabloid, the Sun, caused other significant right of centre titles to follow: the Daily Express (actually a serious newspaper in the 1980s, rather than the joke publication of today) and Daily Mail were also strong supporters.
So far, so productive. But, whereas the papers could, and did, flagrantly fail to separate news and comment, routinely to the Tories’ advantage, the broadcast media, by law, could not. If Thatcher had any doubts about the determination of the broadcasters to be not merely even handed, but ask inconvenient questions, her appearance on the BBC’s news magazine Nationwide in the run up to the 1983 General Election put her straight. Her ambushing by a singularly determined viewer over the minutiae of the Falklands conflict had husband Denis spitting into his tincture about “pinkos”. It’s highly likely that this incident set off the Thatcher vindictive circuit, ready to give the broadcasters payback the next time.
And so it came to pass. The ITV London weekday franchise, Thames TV, broadcast “Death on the Rock”, an investigation into the shooting dead of three IRA members in the British enclave of Gibraltar by what were believed to be soldiers of the SAS. The central thrust of the broadcast was that the IRA members were unarmed, and had not been given the opportunity to surrender. I saw the programme: the feeling was that the UK had wasted a chance to arrest the three, put them on trial, and therefore prove that we were the good guys.
There was no sign that evening of what was to follow: the following morning, in a disturbingly concerted attack, every Tory supporting tabloid rounded on Thames. So did the supposedly quality Murdoch Times. Witnesses who had appeared in the broadcast were not merely abused, but repeatedly libelled, most famously housewife Carmen Proetta, who the Sun called “The Tart of Gib” in a routinely defamatory front page spread.
Mrs Proetta later won hundreds of thousands of pounds in damages, and to this day it is clearly something that journalists involved in the smearing of people like her find difficult to discuss. But for Margaret Thatcher there was no discomfiture or difficulty. The broadcast media had been shown who was boss; she had got her payback – or, rather, part of it. That vindictive streak demanded more: Thames TV lost their franchise.
Thus Margaret Thatcher set new benchmarks for not only courting the media, but also for keeping it compliant. The lessons were not lost on her successors.