Margaret Thatcher 'considered suing BBC's Today show'

Denis Thatcher, here with his wife on the steps of No 10 in 1979, called for the editor of the BBC's Today programme to be fired Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Denis Thatcher, here with his wife on the steps of No 10 in 1979, called for the editor of the BBC's Today programme to be fired

Margaret Thatcher considered suing BBC Radio 4's Today programme for libel, previously secret papers reveal.

In 1988, the former prime minister contemplated legal action after a piece on the show compared "Thatcherism" to Hitler's Final Solution, newly released Cabinet Office files show.

The then Today editor now admits it was "probably unwise" to have broadcast it.

In the end, no legal action was taken, but Mrs Thatcher's husband Denis wrote the BBC a personal letter of complaint.

The offence was caused by one of the runners-up in a competition organised jointly with the Sunday Telegraph to write a "mini-saga" in no more than 50 words, with an extra 15 words allowed for a title.

There were 64,000 entries, including one from Vincent Hill of London entitled Thatcherism: The Final Solution, which was read out on the programme on 14 January 1988.

'Revolting defamation'

The piece envisaged a world in which Mrs Thatcher had legalized hard drugs.

As a result "legitimate outlets replaced bankrupt drug syndicates. Crime figures plunged. Crematorium shares surged," it read.

In the story, the weak died, and "only the worthiest survived" while "the unfit died of freedom".

A file now released to the National Archives at Kew show the item went down badly at No 10, which sought legal advice on whether it was libellous.

The advice was yes, it was "a particularly revolting defamation".

Transcript of the "Mini-saga" item broadcast on the Today programme on 14 January 1988:

Thatcherism: The Final Solution, by Vincent Hill of London

Ingenious: individual choice must be paramount. With growing confidence she legalised hard drugs. Prices fell sharply. Legitimate outlets replaced bankrupt drug syndicates. Crime figures plunged. Crematorium shares surged. City populations thinned as the weak spirited succumbed. Unemployment vanished. Only the worthiest survived. Nobody could complain. The unfit died of freedom.

Mr Thatcher, incensed by what he had heard, wrote a personal letter of complaint to the BBC's then chairman Marmaduke Hussey.

His typewritten letter is in the file, with a handwritten "Dear Duke" and "Regards to you both, yours ever, Denis".

Mr Thatcher wrote: "The extent and depth of political bias in the BBC is a matter of opinion, but this is a disgrace judged by any standard however low.

"I cannot believe that the management of a public broadcasting system can continue to employ a producer who publishes so foul and deliberate an untruth against anyone on such a subject. Surely such gross professional misconduct can neither be excused nor condoned?"

Image copyright National Archives
Image caption A letter to the BBC's chairman and a written memo from Denis Thatcher complained about the "foul libel" against his wife

The editor of the programme at the time, Phil Harding, now says it was "probably unwise" to have broadcast the item.

But he says he was not told of Mr Thatcher's intervention.

"As far as I can see he wrote a letter calling for me to be sacked. I knew there'd been a fuss. I didn't know he'd written that letter and that's the first time I've seen it. It was quite a shock."

'No apology'

Mr Harding says he was later told by a Downing Street insider that Mr Thatcher was an avid Today listener: Mrs Thatcher listened to parts of the programme; he listened to all of it.

"Very often it was he who told Maggie what had been on, and in doing so he would launch into a tirade that would begin with the words, 'You'll never guess what those dash-dash people at the BBC have done now.'"

Image caption Marmaduke Hussey was the chairman of BBC's board of governors from 1986 to 1996

Another document in the file reveals that Marmaduke Hussey's name had been on a list of possible invitees to a Downing Street reception, but was struck off by Mr Thatcher.

In a handwritten note Mr Thatcher wrote: "Never in the history of public broadcasting has so foul a libel been published against ANYONE, let alone a prime minister."

There is no indication in the file of what happened next, nor is there anything in the BBC's own written archives at Caversham which sheds light.

Phil Harding says he was talked to by his bosses and admitted he should have kept a closer eye on the mini-saga series, but says he is not aware of any formal apology by the BBC.

"My guess would be there was phone call from someone, maybe Duke Hussey to Denis Thatcher."

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