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Thatcher Cabinet Discussed Jailing Reporters Over Riot Coverage

Willie Whitelaw
Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw told the Cabinet on July 9, “Reintroducing the Riot Act in a modernized form might be presentationally helpful and would have the additional advantage that anyone found on the streets once the statutory time from reading the proclamation expired, including press and radio and television reporters, would be guilty of an absolute offence.” Source: Keystone/Getty Images

Margaret Thatcher’s government considered arresting journalists covering riots in Britain in 1981 as it blamed the media for fomenting violence in inner-city areas, according to previously secret Cabinet papers.

Like David Cameron’s Tory-led government amid riots this year, Thatcher’s Conservative Cabinet wrestled with the violence that spread across cities including London, Liverpool and Manchester in the summer of 1981. While Cameron looked at shutting down social-media networks, Thatcher turned against television companies and considered a change in the law to allow reporters covering riots to be arrested, papers released today after the statutory 30-year delay show.

“Reintroducing the Riot Act in a modernized form might be presentationally helpful and would have the additional advantage that anyone found on the streets once the statutory time from reading the proclamation expired, including press and radio and television reporters, would be guilty of an absolute offence,” Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw told the Cabinet on July 9. He was referring to the 1714 law, since repealed, that gave rise to the phrase “read the Riot Act.”

Thatcher’s Cabinet faced similar challenges to Cameron’s as they grappled with rising unemployment and young people with “no loyalty to society.” Thatcher took a personal interest in ensuring how money was spent to improve conditions and job prospects in inner cities and her government decided the cash should be allocated to broader “travel-to-work” areas around cities so communities where there had been “well-organized rioting” were not seen as being rewarded.

Rubber Bullets

The riots, which Cabinet minutes show ministers blamed on radical socialist agitators and “problem families” as well as television and unemployment, showed “an alarmingly widespread lack of moral sense.” Ministers agreed to give police permission to use rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons on rioters and to equip officers with flameproof uniforms.

Britain’s unemployment rate shot up from 5.3 percent when Thatcher’s government was elected in May 1979 to 9.4 percent two years later, as measured by International Labor Organization standards.

In the Brixton district of south London, riots broke out in April 1981 after police used new stop-and-search powers to detain disproportionate numbers of young black men. The violence in Brixton, which inspired similar unrest across the country, left 299 police officers and 65 civilians injured and 28 buildings burned out, with another 117 damaged and looted, according to the Metropolitan Police. It was the first time Molotov cocktails had been thrown in mainland Britain, the police said.

‘Prominence to Violence’

“The generation of young people now growing up were habituated to watching television for many hours every day, and there was good reason to fear that television had undermined the traditional disciplines of family life, and had given prominence to violence in both news and entertainment programs,” the record of the 1981 Cabinet discussion says. “The home secretary should consider what more could be done to encourage the broadcasting authorities to pay greater attention to the possible side effects of the way in which they collected and broadcast news items about violent incidents.”

Cameron told lawmakers in the House of Commons this year that his government was considering closing down social-media networks to stop them being used to encourage disorder. He mentioned Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry Messenger service as one of the tools that were used by rioters.

‘Crack Down’

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media,” Cameron said on Aug. 11. Home Secretary Theresa May met police chiefs and social-media companies two weeks later to discuss how to “crack down on the networks being used for criminal behavior.”

On July 16, 1981, a week after discussing the arrest of journalists, Thatcher’s Cabinet agreed it would be a mistake to rush through new laws even though they would be supported in Parliament. Ministers were told that Leslie Scarman, a judge who was leading an inquiry into the Brixton unrest, had said he would oppose a new version of the Riot Act.

Whitelaw met with the management of the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which regulated commercial TV companies, and “impressed on them the great importance which the government attached to the responsible reporting of civil disturbances,” the record of the meeting says.

‘Marked Improvement’

“He had also drawn their attention to the inflammatory effect which the showing of violent entertainment films could have during a period of heightened tension,” the notes of the July 16 meeting say. “They had promised to bear his points in mind, and there had in fact been a marked improvement in news reporting in the last few days.”

Thatcher’s government said that tackling “hopelessness and despair” was the best way to stop further riots. Even so, minutes of a discussion about the economy on July 23, which Thatcher described in her memoir as “one of the bitterest arguments” in the Cabinet during her premiership, show divisions among ministers over the best way to deal with rising unemployment and stagnant growth.

A presentation by Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe, in which he admitted that “contrary to the government’s expectations and promises, the burdens of tax and public expenditure had both increased since 1979,” was described as “inadequate” and not “sufficiently imaginative” by unidentified ministers, the documents show.

‘Open to Question’

“The assertion that tax reductions were a better way of stimulating employment than additional public expenditure was open to question,” according to the report of the meeting. Trying to cut borrowing during a recession was “unrealistic,” ministers told Howe, arguing in a similar way to the opposition Labour Party today.

As today, the reaction of the markets hung over the discussion. By early 1981, gross domestic product had shrunk for five successive quarters, while the inflation rate, as measured by the retail price index, was at 12.6 percent. It had been above 10 percent since Thatcher took power.

“If the financial markets were to take the view that the government’s determination was weakening, the economic strategy, and the reduction of inflation, would be increasingly vulnerable,” Howe told ministers. “The present burden of tax was one of the main factors hindering the growth of new employment opportunities,” he said, and public spending would have to be cut to bring down taxes.

Thatcher’s determination to save money went from the large to the small. A 1979 file just released shows her astonishment at being told that it had cost more than 1,700 pounds (then about $3,500) to refurbish the apartment at her Downing Street residence, a quarter of that going on bed linen, with 200 pounds going on crockery. “I find these figures impossible to believe,” an aide wrote in the margin of the document.

“So do I!” wrote Thatcher underneath. “We only use one bedroom. I could use my own crockery.” Seeing 19 pounds set aside for the cost of a new ironing board, she wrote: “I will pay. I have an excellent ironing board which is not in use at home.”

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