Three-D Issue 20: Two ends of the story: lessons from the 1980s

Pat Holland, Bournemouth University

4 Pat H - q1Watching television last year was a strange experience for me. As the Leveson Enquiry was unfolding around me on various screens, big and small, public and private, I was also immersed in the programmes of the 1980s. On my home television set, Leveson and his witnesses were interspersed with Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbitt and less memorable politicians like David Waddington, the Home Secretary who saw though the 1990 Broadcasting Act. VHS tapes I’d recorded thirty years ago were coming down from the shelves for viewing – some of them for the first time. (There is some virtue in being a hoarder!) It was like living through two ends of a story simultaneously. It convinced me that what will happen after Leveson is strongly tied to what happened before. So I’m going to take this opportunity to remind us all of the deep roots of the problems, of which the hacking scandal is just one symptom.

The changes of the 1980s were crucial for UK media, and I can draw attention to three:

  1. technology. Following experiments with cable and satellite and the launch of the fourth television channel, there eager anticipation of a ‘Third Age’ of broadcasting (Wenham 1982).
  2. politics and the legislation enacted by the Margaret Thatcher’s three Conservative governments:
  3. and a significant shift in attitudes towards broadcasting and its context as the concept of broadcasting as a ‘public service’ came under pressure from the government’s powerful monetarist, free-market ideas.

These three factors interacted. They affected each other: each was modified, in relation to the others. Together they created the potent mix which underlies the situation we have today. (If I were writing in the theoretical/structuralist 1980s I would be discussing ideas like ‘relative autonomy’ and ‘determination in the last instance’ and such-like. Fortunately I’m writing in the more pragmatic 20teens).

The point is that the changes of the 1980s laid the groundwork for a wealthy, globally-based multi-media corporation, News Corporation, to expand its power across media platforms, and exert the sort influence on successive UK governments that was made shockingly clear in evidence to Leveson.

Here is a brief – and hugely oversimplified – note of the 1980s changes. First television: In the early 1980s, the three television organisations drew their income from different sources and all three had statutory public-service commitments. As the Annan Report had argued in 1977, a diversity of funding ensured diversity of output and of appeal. Competition was for quality not for income. So ‘public service’ did not equal ‘publicly funded’: it was not confined to the BBC. Current-affairs programmes on all channels were an important outlet for investigative journalism. They were spiky and difficult and did not hesitate to criticise the government (Holland 2006).

It was clear to the government that a de-regulated media would be a more compliant media – just like the press. And this is where Rupert Murdoch came into the picture with his strong support for Thatcherite values. In the run up to the 1979 election The Sun – until then a traditional Labour paper – editorialised, ‘We are proud to have a working-class readership’ but ‘the Labour party…does not excite…With Margaret Thatcher there is a chance for us to look again to the skies’ (Lamb 1989:154-5). In 1981 the government facilitated Murdoch’s acquisition of the Times and Sunday Times without referring the bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Margaret Thatcher’s papers for 1981, released in 2012, reveal a ‘Commercial -in confidence’ meeting between Thatcher and Murdoch, in advance of the decision, although any contact between the two had been previously denied. In his evidence to Leveson, editor Harry Evans described the take-over as a ‘seminal event’ which ultimately led to the Enquiry.

The government aimed to move broadcasting away from the regulated model, and closer to the unregulated press. It encouraged the newer technologies, cable and satellite to be outside the established structure. The Peacock Report of 1986 looked forward to the establishment of a ‘full broadcasting market’ when the appropriate technology was available. The 1990 Broadcasting Act relaxed regulation on ITV and pushed all broadcasters, including the BBC, in a more commercial direction. Questions of democracy and the public interest were re-defined. ‘Citizens’ became ‘consumers’.

Murdoch had long had ambitions to own a television channel. In 1967, he had bought into London Weekend Television but was forced to sell out by the regulator of the day because of rules which limited cross-media ownership (Tracey 1983: 16-21). In 1983 he launched the pan-European Sky TV. But 1989 became the next seminal moment, when he launched five Sky channels beamed directly to the UK, then swallowed up the domestically-based consortium British Satellite Broadcasting. And the cross-media ownership rules? By now legislation provided an escape clause: his channels were transmitted from a ‘non-domestic’ source, and so were exempt (Goodwin 1998:50-53). In 1993 in Breakfast with Frost, David Frost asked BBC DG John Birt when Sky would be the BBC’s main competitor. Birt replied, ‘By the end of the decade’ (BBC1 7.11.1993).

So, although newspapers and broadcasting were under completely separate regimes, they were linked. Murdoch had built up his fortune first by driving The Sun  and The News of the World downmarket – and ‘monstering’ and humiliating unfortunate individuals was part of that, long before they had mobile phones to hack (Chippendale and Horrie 1990) – and then by streamlining The Times and The Sunday Times in the notorious, union-busting move to Wapping. His profits supported his satellite business and kickstarted his American operations.

Following the push towards a market-based system initiated in the 1980s, the structures of UK broadcasting have changed. ITV is a single company and has lost its regional base. Its current affairs and hard-hitting factual programmes have all but disappeared (Fitzwalter 2008). Channel 4 now sells its own advertising, and despite remaining a not-for-profit corporation, has no way of recapturing its original radicalism. The BBC has outsourced numerous activities, set up its own commercial enterprises and sold substantial units to private companies. Even so it is constantly attacked for its size and its apologies have been cringing. ‘The BBC …must listen to legitimate concerns from commercial media players more carefully than it has in the past and act sooner to meet them’ wrote ex-DG Mark Thompson (BBC 2010:16).

And, the role of the regulator has changed. Ofcom (The Office of Communications) was set up in 2003 with a brief to de-regulate and to balance ‘public interest’ against ‘market impact’. Even so James Murdoch attacked it in his Edinburgh lecture of 2009, while David Cameron described it as an ‘unaccountable bureaucracy’ and promised to abolish it if he was elected.

So, for media policy after Leveson, problems with their roots in the 1980s remain. Structural changes are needed to unwind legislation which has pushed towards de-regulation, commercialisation, and increased power for internationally based media conglomerates. Protection from commercial pressures is increasingly difficult to achieve as the powers of national governments are reduced in what Colin Leys called ‘market-driven politics’. He wrote, ‘to survive in office [governments] must increasingly ‘manage‘ national politics in such a way as to adapt them to the pressures of transnational market forces’ (Leys 2001:1).

But nothing will be achieved without challenging the climate of opinion inherited from the 1980s which continues to devalue the public interest and public service; which pays no more than lip service to the relationship between media and democracy.

Hacking, serious as it is, is only a small part of the problem. Misbehaving newspapers can be rapped over the knuckles or even closed down without making much of a difference. Indeed, focussing attention on such practices could serve as a distraction from these larger, structural issues.  Unfortunately, since Leveson reported, it has become increasing likely that a rap over the knuckles will be all that results.


These notes are based on the Bournemouth University research project There’s no such thing as society’? A study of broadcasting and the public services under the three Thatcher Governments 1979-1990.

to be published as

Broadcasting and the NHS in the Thatcherite 1980s: challenging public service by Patricia Holland with Hugh Chignell and Sherryl Wilson  Palgrave Macmillan

to be published Summer 2013.

Pat Holland lectures at Bournemouth University and is co-chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF).


BBC (2010) BBC Strategy Review  London:BBC Trust

Chippendale, C. and Horrie, C. (1990) Stick it Up Your Punter! The Rise and Fall of the Sun  London:Heinemann

Fitzwalter, R. (2008) The Dream that Died: the Rise and Fall of ITV.  Leicester: Matador

Goodwin, P. (1998) Television under the Tories: Broadcasting Policy 1979-1997 London:BFI

Holland, P. (2006) The Angry Buzz: ‘This Week’ and Current Affairs Television. London:I.B.Tauris

Lamb, L. (1989) Sunrise  London:Pan Macmillan

Leys, C (2001) Market-Driven Politics: Neoliberal Democracy and the Public Interest London:Verso

Tracey, M. (1983) In the Culture of the Eye: 10 Years of Weekend World London:Hutchinson

Wenham, B.(ed) (1982) The Third Age of Broadcasting London:Faber

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