The Lie Machine: Thatcher, Murdoch and The Miners Strike

The attempt by The Sun to whip up a storm over Corbyn and the Czech spy is part of a long history of smear campaigning against the left in Britain. During the Miners Strike, the full weight of the establishment worked to undermine their cause. Back then, three people owned 75% of daily paper sales. There was no alternative. In 2018 there is a resistance. 

Part One: Secrets and Lies

The Sun’s attempt to smear Jeremy Corbyn this week is a stark reminder of the length the paper will stoop to ensure the Tories cling on to power. The co-ordianted attack is reminiscent of the behaviour undertook during the miners strike, when Murdoch went to great lengths to defend ‘Maggie’. If you look at the landscape forged in the aftermath of the miners strike; of insecure work, mass outsourcing of services, zero hour contracts and continuous wage reductions, the roots can be found in the miners defeat and the subsequent erosion of collective bargaining power.

In the early 1980s however, Thatcherism and Newscorp were not the inevitable forces they now purport to be. The battle for the future would be fought in three vital stages; a test case in 1981 against the steel workers, a bloody confrontation with the NUM in 1984 and the special dispensation for Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of The Times and move to Wapping in 1986. The Tories won all three battles.

An initial confrontation with the miners was averted in February 1981. A month prior to the u-turn, a secret meeting took place between Thatcher and Murdoch at Chequers. The fact that they met at all was strenuously denied for 30 years. Both were at a political crossroads; she trailed in the polls and was dogged by a failed economic policy. He was being prevented from expanding his media empire and developing modern technology that would eventually make unions and workers obsolete. Murdoch arrived at Chequers to keep Thatcher informed of his takeover bid of The Times and Sunday Times.

The direct personal lobbying was critical for the bid, as the Tories had the power to block the acquisition by referring it to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC). We do not know what assurances were given. We do know that Murdoch claimed he was gambling on his strength and ability “to crack a particularly tough nut” in the printing unions. Bernard Ingham, in accordance with their wishes, did not circulate the note of the meeting. This ensured that no one would be told the meeting took place for the next 30 years, not even John Biffen – the minister responsible for referring bids to the MMC.

A month after the meeting took place, Murdoch shocked the world by purchasing The Times in a cut price deal. Biffen,on grounds that the two papers ‘were not going concerns’ waved the takeover through, for fear of having to close it down. Overnight, Murdoch doubled the number of national newspapers he owned, by adding The Times and The Sunday Times to The Sun and the News of the World. He now had a 40% share in the daily newspaper market and unparalleled media power.


In the official history of The Times, (published by Murdoch’s own publishing firm)  it claims “In 1981, Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch scarcely knew one another and had no communication whatsoever during the period in which The Times bid and referral was up for discussion.” We now know this to be a lie. The two had enjoyed a close relationship ever since she became leader of the opposition in 1976. Tim Bell, who ran Thatcher’s 1979 election campaign, admitted that The Sun was the paper they courted the most due to its ‘big C1 and C2 readership’. On election day, a 1700 word editorial asked readers to ‘VOTE TORY THIS TIME’. The support did not go unnoticed.

A few days after the landslide victory,  Thatcher wrote to the editor of The Sun, the soon to be knighted Larry Lamb. In it, she thanked him for ‘being a valued friend and ally’ and admitted that ‘I owe you a great debt for the confidence you put in me.’ He would be knighted in her first honours list. The debt she owed would be repaid with interest when Murdoch met with Thatcher whilst the bidding process for The Times was still in play. The acquisition intrinsically linked the two forever more. Both had a vested interest in the other succeeding. Over the next decade, rather than secret lunches at Chequers, the battle would be taken to the fields of Goose Green, Orgreave and Wapping.

Part Two: Civil War

In the years leading up to the strike, Sir Larry Lamb was replaced by Kelvin MacKenzie after Murdoch became upset at having to address Lamb as Sir. This contradicted The Sun’s campaign of opposition to the honours system. Emboldened by a second landslide election victory, a successful war and a divided Labour party, Thatcher aimed squarely at her real ‘enemy within’, the people credited with bringing down the last two Tory governments – the NUM. A confrontation had been years in the making. Whilst in opposition, Nicholas Ridley prepared an analysis of how the government could defeat militant trade unionism. It recommended building up of coal stocks, importation of foreign coal, recruitment of non unionised lorry drivers and the introduction of oil power stations were possible. It also recommended ‘a large mobile squad of police equipped’ and an ability for government to ‘cut off the money supply to the strikers.’

The strike began in March 1984, when the NCB announced the plan to cut 20,000 jobs and dramatically reduce the coal stocks. Triggered into a reaction, Scargill immediately declared it a national strike, calling on all NUM members to withdraw their labour. The framing narrative of the right wing press would be hugely significant. Much like the Brexit coverage we see today, a ‘war’ spirit was invoked at every opportunity. It was good v evil, rule of law v rule of the mob, hero police v scum miner. It was framed like this from the outset; as “an army of 8,000 police at battle stations in the bloody pit war.” The Sun revelled in an opportunity to sell the strike as a civil war between working miners.

Commentary on the strike rapidly moved from a debate about the future of mining to the subversion of the law, anti-democracy and militant trade union power. The Sun spent much of their time sourcing ‘martyr’ workers who wanted to return to work, but were prevented from doing so. Although the NUM were not constitutionally bound to call a national ballot, the decision not to hold one handed political virtue to the media and the government. Although the majority of the miners supported strike action, and were not themselves calling for a national ballot, The Sun saw an opportunity to attack the NUM. As the strike began, MacKenzie faced up to the powerful print unions by putting his own ballot paper in The Sun so that people could have a mock vote. The unions refused to print it at first, declaring it an unwarranted interference in an industrial dispute. MacKenzie agreed to a compromise; he would allow Scargill a right of reply within the paper and attach a statement to the ballot paper disassociating the printers from it.

On the 13 March 1984,  The Sun wrote “PIT WAR: Violence erupts on the picket line as miner fights miner”. It marked a shift in tone from previous industrial disputes. The Express soon picked up on the war game narrative, noting “rampaging armies of pickets at the besieged Nottinghamshire pit”. The Sun described Arthur Scargill, the democratically elected leader of the NUM as a ‘dictator’ whilst The Express called him an ‘army general’. The nationalistic media framing was supported by Thatcher, who told her own MPs that ‘In the Falklands we had to fight the enemy from without. Here is the enemy within. And it is much more difficult to fight and just as dangerous to liberty.’ Much of the reporting on the ground, from broadcasters and journalists was done from behind the police lines. This gave credence to the distorted perception that only the miners caused violence on the picket lines. For The Sun the real heroes of the strike were the police, exemplified in MacKenzie’s tribute to them at the end of the strike. Evoking imagery of the first world war, the front cover depicted a blooded police officer under the headline “Lest We Forget”.

Throughout the conflict, Thatcher could rely on the support of the majority of the news editors. The revolving door of Fleet Street saw Sir Larry Lamb re-enter the scene as editor of the Daily Express. His loyalty to Thatcher would be tested to the max and his stewardship began in controversial fashion. On the 9th May 1984, Lamb shocked the world with his exclusive story about Arthur Scargill. The front page read “I AM LEADING MY MEN TO DISASTER.” Lamb had an exclusive story that Scargill had claimed the strike was purely political and could not be won. Yet the front page was fiction. Inside the paper, Lamb wrote “The speech that the Daily Express believes Arthur Scargill would be making…if he cared about the truth.”

It was the type of weird fan fiction that Dominic Sandbrook, writes about Jeremy Corbyn in the Daily Mail. Back then, Lord Matthews, who alongside Maxwell and Murdoch owned 75% of the daily press, recognised Lamb had gone too far. He agreed that Scargill should be given the right of reply. When the reply was printed, Lamb offered his resignation – which was swiftly declined. It did not prevent the attacks on the miners. The portrayal of Scargill as an unhinged ‘Nazi like’ figure was a co-ordianted attack, the like of which is now being aimed at Jeremy Corbyn. Tony Benn noted that “a kind of civil war is developing; there is no parallel that I remember in my lifetime.” The Express went further again a few months later, questioning the state of Scargill’s mental health.

A chance photograph of Scargill at Orgreave in May 1984 would become a defining moment in the year long struggle. Appearing to show him making a Nazi salute, MacKenzie intended to run a piece under the headline “MINE FUHRER”. The front page never hit the shelves, as the production chapels refused to set it. After a heated stand off, the paper went ahead with the headline ‘The Sun has decided reluctantly to print the paper without either.’ The victory gave much needed boost to the striking miners.


Early on in the strike, the right wing press focussed on the ‘drift back to work’. The papers kept a daily log of the numbers returning. After just four weeks of the strike, the Daily Mail ran with ‘MINERS START ‘SLOW DRIFT BACK TO WORK’  to demonstrate that support for the strike was crumbling. That the figures were being manipulated by the NCB was besides the point. By September of the strike, The Sun became entrenched in its hatred for the miners. Under a front page entitled ‘SCUM OF THE EARTH’, MacKenzie’s leader claimed ‘Miners were rightly once called the salt of the earth. No longer. To many of them have become the scum of the earth’ before labelling the picketers ‘terrorists’. Again, the compositors refused to set into type the editorial and a four-day stoppage ensued. It entrenched Murdoch in his belief that the unions would need to be defeated.

The use of the word ‘Scum’ enraged the printers, a word that became increasingly prevalent in the paper under the discourse of MacKenzie. It was a catch all term to describe many of the figures associated with the left; football fans, homosexuals, ethnic minorities, people on benefits and so on.The theme would continue into the 1990s, as documented here when the right wing press attacked single mothers to support Tory welfare reform.It has continued in its newest form with an attack on migrants, refugees, members of Momentum and millennials. It is a process that Manuel Castells has called ‘Switching Power’ in which Rupert Murdoch’s media fabricates tension between different groups of people. He then becomes ‘the switch’ between government and voter, requiring support from a prime minister before switching it.

The miners couldn’t expect support from an impartial BBC either. In the most controversial moment of the strike, the BBC’s evening news bulletin after Orgreave featured an altered sequence of events to make it appear that the miners had provoked the police. In an era of just four tv channels, there was little scope to challenge the perception. The news footage was the only medium in which the public could watch live images. The following day, the BBC’s Alan Protheroe told an internal meeting that the  coverage ‘might not have been wholly impartial.’ Unfortunately for the striking miners, an apology was not issued until 1991 when the battle had been long lost.

To this day, much of the ‘dark arts’ between the media and the Tories is still not understood. When The Sunday Telegraph dropped a story from its second edition about the proposed involvement of troops in the strike, the hidden hand of the government was suspected. Geoffrey Goodman, the Daily Mirror’s industrial editor during the strike, claims an insider admitted ‘specific instructions from the highest level of government to the BBC to ensure that TV camera crews filming the conflict between miners and the police focused their shots on miners’ violence, but not on the police smashing heads.’ Until an enquiry is opened, as has been promised under a Corbyn government, we will have no conformation of what secret forces were at play.

The Truth

During the strike, the left did look at ways to create an alternative media. One edition of the Miners’ Campaign Tapes, entitled The Lie Machine, directly addresses the distortions within the media and should accompany the reading of this piece. In the current media landscape however it is increasingly difficult for The Sun to defend their methods and attract a new audience. Since the 2017 election, circulation figures are down 8.8%. The attack on the left has not evolved since the heady days of the miners strike, and if the last election is anything to go by,  project fear has not connected. Murdoch has his own issues, with The Sun making a loss of £24m last year as a loss in print advertising bites.

The next war will be fought over dwindling advertising revenues, curbs on new technologies, social media and fake news. The miners defeat proved to be the last stand of the old industrial trade unions, proving to be the catalyst for Thatcher and Murdoch’s smashing of the print unions. Murdoch ensured his paper would never be censored again when he moved to Wapping. From that moment on, The Sun became even more outlandish in its claims, with no mechanism in place to restrain its agenda.

The vehement attack on the left and the working class culminated in The Sun fabricating its own version of ‘The Truth’ after the Hillsborough disaster. MacKenzie, quick to reaffirm his hatred for ‘scum’ football fans from Liverpool, printed his lies about the victims. The brutal smear would linger in the public mind for the next seven years, until Jimmy McGovern tackled the events for his drama Hillsborough in 1996. The ensuing protest and fearless campaigning ensured that MacKenzie never followed in Lamb’s footsteps with a knighthood. He did maintain a column in the paper until last year.

Today the rise of social media gives everybody a platform to resist Murdoch and it is greater than anything the print unions could have dreamed of. Nevertheless, the motives of the press barons and editors remain the same. Before the next election, Murdoch and The Sun will instigate a culture war, the like of which we have not seen in Britain. With exaggerated stories about dancing at the Cenotaph, Czech spies, and terrorist sympathising, it constitutes a desperate bid to maintain power. It must not succeed.


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