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John Major government ministers were discouraged from attending launch of Sky TV channels, records show

John Major’s government felt media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s UK publications attacked the then Prime Minister unfairly, with Cabinet ministers discouraged from attending an event celebrating the launch of new Sky TV channels, archive files from 1993 show.

A briefing note also alleged that Murdoch held “very biased views” on UK affairs owing to regular phone calls with then Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie.

But Number 10 thought the Australian magnate was unlikely to read his British newspaper titles regularly and “would be quite dismayed by some of their contents”.

A briefing prepared by press secretary Gus O’Donnell from August 1993 ahead of a meeting between Major and Murdoch reads: “I was surprised to learn, given the worldwide scale of his business, that he phones Kelvin MacKenzie most days to keep up to date on the British scene.

“God alone knows what Kelvin tells him, as he is often very poorly informed. This explains why Murdoch frequently obtains very biased views of what is happening here.

“It is also clear that Murdoch is aware, in outline terms at least, of the line taken by his papers. However, I very much doubt whether he reads them regularly.”

The documents are part of the annual release of Cabinet Office files at the National Archives in Kew, west London.

Despite instructions that Cabinet ministers should not attend a “special celebration” on 1 September 1993 marking the launch of new Sky TV channels, Home Secretary Michael Howard went along in an attempt to gain favour.

In a handwritten note to the Prime Minister, Mr Howard raises questions about what “tactics we should adopt towards the Murdoch press”.

He writes: “I hope I need hardly say that I fully share your dismay at their behaviour since the election. But we shall need them at the next election.

“And given the unpalatable (to them) nature of some of the things we are likely to be doing quite soon – Calcutt (VAT?) – the case for some harmless, costless gesture such as attending the dinner seems to me quite strong.”

A handwritten note from Major’s private secretary Roderic Lyne to the PM two days after the event adds: “Murdoch has had the nerve to invite you again – for 23 Sept.”

Mr Lyne also adds a comment noting that Labour were on the attack over Mr Murdoch’s “very controversial” newspaper price wars.

It reads: “Murdoch’s campaign to drive the other tabloids down and The Independent out of business, by cutting the cover price of The Sun and The Times to sub-economic levels (funded by the huge profits of his empire by satellite television etc) has become very controversial.”

Picture: Chatham House/Flickr

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