A BBC radio documentary was deemed so defamatory about Margaret Thatcher that the then-prime minister’s husband wrote a stinging letter to the corporation’s chairman – and then crossed his name from a party guest list.
Denis Thatcher complained about an excerpt from a report on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, entitled Thatcherism: The Final Solution, which hinted the Government’s perceived economic liberalism, such as legalising hard drugs, was a ruse for killing off “the weak”.
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Official Government documents, released by the National Archives in Kew, reveal the lengths Mr Thatcher went to in defence of his wife.
The programme, which aired on 14 January 1988, included the line: “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.”
It prompted Nigel Wicks, principal Downing Street private secretary, to write a letter to Michael Saunders, at the Attorney General’s office, asking whether the content was defamatory – and was told it certainly was.
But, with Mrs Thatcher not wanting to instruct defamation specialists, the matter appeared to be closed until Mr Thatcher wrote to the chairman of the BBC, Marmaduke “Duke” Hussey, complaining about the “foul” libel of his wife.
Mr Thatcher claimed the “extent and depth” of political bias in the BBC was a matter of opinion but said the radio feature was “a disgrace judged by any standard, however low”.
He added: “I cannot believe that the management of a public broadcasting system can continue to employ a producer who published so foul and deliberate an untruth against anyone on such a subject. Surely such gross professional misconduct can neither be excused nor condoned?”
It is not clear whether any action was taken against the BBC, although it was noted Mr Thatcher subsequently scrubbed Mr Hussey’s name from the guest list for a Whitehall reception.
When Mrs Thatcher was asked by an adviser if she thought Mr Hussey ought to be invited just for the tail-end of the function to discuss the Today issue and patch-up any disagreement over the programme, it was her husband who replied tersely.
Mr Thatcher wrote, with occasional words underlined or capped-up: “I only crossed out Mr Hussey because I did not think [the function] is (a) suitable for Duke (as you say) and (b) important enough. I did discuss with PM.”
He added: “I enclose copy of letter which I wrote to Duke. Never in the history of public broadcasting has so foul a libel been published against ANYONE let alone a Prime Minister.”
Mrs Thatcher’s drug policies were considered politically brave at the time and included a nationwide needle exchange programme design to reduce the risk of infection among heroin users.