How Tony Benn suggested nationalising The Times

Left-wing veteran Tony Benn sparked Government horror when he took it upon himself to suggest that the BBC could buy The Times newspaper.

Printing of The Times was suspended for nearly a year from November 1978, leading to fears that it may not survive.

Benn went off-piste by publicly suggesting that the Corporation could take over without warning fellow Cabinet members about his plans.

The row was set out in documents made public today by the National Archives under the 30-year rule.

Benn published a paper in February 1979 which he released at a meeting with union leaders detailing his proposal.

It said: “This paper argues that there is a case, on grounds of public policy, for the BBC to acquire and operate The Times to resolve the present crisis.”

The unions were in deadlock with management over the introduction of more modern printing equipment.

Benn’s paper continued: “The Times may not survive, and Britain would be deprived of two great newspapers which have become national institutions at home and world-wide.

“At some stage in this protracted struggle alternative solutions would come forward and some might involve a change of ownership, possibly – as with the Observer – by the emergence of a would-be purchaser from abroad.

“It would therefore be prudent to consider a means by which the Times could be saved on a basis that preserves its essential national character.”

He argued that the BBC and The Times were “national institutions” and that by buying the newspaper the broadcaster would acquire printing presses which could be used to launch new publications.

But the reaction to the grand plan was less than warm from Eric Moonman, the sponsored MP for trade union the National Graphical Association.

The following month he wrote to Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury Michael Cocks accusing Benn of interfering.

Moonman said: “This really is meddling, and he is creating false hopes by introducing the takeover factor, BBC-style or not.

“What is needed is an end to the present stalemate, and Albert Booth (employment secretary) is rightly involved because that is his job, but in no way is it the concern of the Secretary of State for Energy. It would be most helpful if he could be told to respect the situation of those most closely concerned by keeping quiet.”

A Downing Street note following Mr Benn’s announcement showed that he had been told “not to do or say anything further about The Times until further notice”.

A hand-written note at the top adds: “The Prime Minister asked that Mr Benn be told that if he wishes to put a paper to his colleagues he should do so through the usual committee.”

Benn had tried to consult Booth about the plan, but the employment secretary had failed to return his telephone call, the file shows.

It also details his claim that the timing of a Government meeting was deliberately changed so he could not attend and raise the issue of gas workers’ pay.

But even Benn’s private secretary put the knife in. A note on a Downing Street memo said: “For your private information, Mr Benn’s private secretary has no doubt that the Cabinet Office acted in good faith, and that Mr Benn has blown this up as part of his ‘conspiracy theory’.”

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