Margaret Thatcher was described by a diplomat as “very oily to kings but matter of fact to lesser mortals” after she apologised to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia for a mistake the BBC had not made.
The dismissive comment is preserved in a Foreign Office file released to the National Archives in Kew on Friday which details disagreement between Whitehall departments.
The file, marked “Secret”, was opened in September 1983 when the Saudis launched a formal demarche, protesting in London and Jeddah about a World Service broadcast alleging maltreatment of Iranian pilgrims during the hajj. Saudi newspapers attacked the BBC.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock, then Britain’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, sent a telegram back to London stating: “The affair is complicated by a muted admission by the minister of the interior yesterday that there was an incident in Medina on September 5th.”
The dispute escalated. An official Saudi statement declared: “It has been noticed that the British Broadcasting Station has persisted lately in transmitting and propagating news quite hurtful … to the rituals and sacred places of the Arab and Muslim nations … especially after the presidency of the BBC was assumed by a Zionist known for his open and obvious hostility to everything Islamic and Arabic.”
Sir Geoffrey Howe, the then foreign secretary, told Greenstock: “Silence on our part might encourage the Saudis to further statements of this sort and the nonsense about the new chairman of the BBC board of governors, Mr Stuart Young, needs to be knocked on the head in some way.”
In October, King Fahd rang Downing Street to express his anger. The Foreign Office was asked to draft a formal response but the prime minister was dissatisfied with the tone of the letter.
Thatcher’s private secretary sent a covering note to the Foreign Office. “The PM considers the proposed reply does not meet the case. She believes we should say that we are disturbed at the misreporting of this incident and that we are sorry it has occurred. She further believes that it is not for us to defend the BBC by reference to their editorial independence.”
The revised text to Fahd from Thatcher read: “I was concerned to learn that an inaccurate news item has been carried by the BBC on 6th September on its Arabic and Persian services. This is regrettable.
“I and all my colleagues attach the highest importance to friendship and co-operation with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and share your majesty’s wish that nothing shall disturb this relationship. I understand that the BBC followed the 6th September report with an immediate report of the Saudi government’s denial of its accuracy.”
In a handwritten note, an FCO official in the Middle Eastern department wrote: “An object lesson somewhere here. PM is very oily to kings but matter of fact to lesser mortals. We can agree with this text.”
The following month, Douglas Muggeridge, managing director of BBC external services, dropped in on the Foreign Office. “[He] said that the Saudis now appeared to have recovered from their irritation. Mr Dodd [controller BBC overseas services] had recently called on the Saudi ambassador who in effect apologised to him for the fuss that had been caused by the broadcast.
“[Muggeridge] thought there was a worrying tendency for Arab countries to criticise BBC output indiscriminately because the chairman was a Jew rather than to criticise individual programmes the content of which they disliked.”
This article was written by Owen Bowcott, for theguardian.com on Friday 3rd July 2015 00.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010