Penalty of a dodgy relationship

Murdoch, once a prized asset, has become something of a liability for Mr Blair
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The Independent Culture
LIKE ALL the best football matches, the relationship between Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch falls neatly into two halves. Up until the general election, half-time let's say, their relationship was going swimmingly. The Sun warmly endorsed Tony Blair, and Labour duly swept into power. Since then, though, both men have singularly failed to realise that new rules now apply. And with Murdoch's bid to buy Manchester United, the game could well be up.

Let us deal first with the opening half, which was controversial enough. Blair and Alastair Campbell were absolutely right to woo Murdoch in advance of the election, and The Sun's endorsement was one of the triumphs of the pre-election strategy. Those masochistic Labour supporters who resented the careful wooing, or regarded The Sun's support as irrelevant, have short memories of the tabloid's capacity to relentlessly undermine Labour leaders. If anyone has doubts about The Sun's powers, ask Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock. It is not just the impact of an election campaign, but the daily assault, year after year, which had been so fatally damaging to Blair's predecessors.

Blair's trip to Australia in July 1995, which is always raised whenever Murdoch is in the news, has assumed mythical proportions. It may not be as grand an honour as being the first journalist to set foot on Port Stanley, but I was the only British journalist to fly on that trip with the Blair entourage. It is time to demythologise the event.

No formal deal was done with Murdoch during the brief News International conference, in which both Blair and Murdoch made mutually appreciative speeches. I have no doubt that, informally, Murdoch was reassuringly told that Labour's policies for the media would not undermine his empire; but Blair did not have to go half-way round the world to make that point. He had already publicly stated the position in several interviews.

The aim of Blair and Campbell on that exhausting, but worthwhile, journey was to neutralise The Sun in the years leading up to the election. To get its endorsement was a bonus that neither expected as they flew back after the gathering. Remember also that Murdoch's embrace was strictly limited. The Sunday Times advised its readers to vote Conservative last year, and still seems to be pursuing a right-wing agenda. The Times recommended its readership to vote for Eurosceptic candidates of any party, which was hardly an endorsement of New Labour.

None the less, The Sun poured praise on to Blair, and saved its vitriol for his opponents. So, up until May 1997, the relationship with Murdoch worked. Ever since, it has been a political liability for Blair. He should have kept his distance once power had been safely secured.

Consider the editorial line of the Murdoch newspapers. If anything, their opposition to the single currency has reached greater intensity in recent months. Under a new editor, The Sun even dared to ask whether Blair had become the most dangerous man in Britain. The Times is equally passionate, if a little less strident.

The hope that Murdoch can be won round to EMU, in the same way that he was courted to become a New Labourite, is a misguided calculation in the Government's strategy. It is a forlorn hope based on the success of the pre-election first half of the relationship. Blair will almost certainly have to fight a referendum on EMU without the support of The Sun, but the chance that that the tabloid can be swayed may dangerously delay the timing of such a campaign. The first-half triumph has had a related but wider consequence. It has led Blair to assume that, on all kinds of policy fronts, The Sun cannot be alienated, although he possesses a much mightier weapon than a fickle newspaper: a three-figure majority.

More immediately, his relationship with Murdoch arouses underestimated resentment among senior ministers. The likes of Gordon Brown and Robin Cook understood and admired the pre-election wooing of Murdoch. They are losing patience now. Their allies point out that The Sun's editorials, let alone those of The Times and The Sunday Times, regularly attack the Government.

In their view, The Sun's line is a personal one: it is pro-Blair, but not a supporter of the Government as a whole. In the short term, expect some coded, or not so coded, attacks on Murdoch from some ministers at the party conference (an easy way, as they know, to bring the house down). In the longer term, several members of the Cabinet will not be minded to help Murdoch in his bid to become the owner of Manchester United. Nor will the Parliamentary Labour Party. There is a whole swath of Labour MPs, of whom Chris Mullin, the chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, is a prominent example, who believe that Blair was absolutely right to woo Murdoch before the election, but should have kept his distance once safely in power.

Instead, the continuing association has landed even the normally sure- footed Alastair Campbell in trouble. Did he lie when he briefed journalists about Blair's phone calls with the Italian Prime Minister in which Murdoch's interests were raised? Not precisely, but Campbell knew that his boss's relationship with Murdoch was so politically sensitive that journalists had to be diverted from the trail. He ended up being summoned to a backbench committee to explain his evasive behaviour. Campbell walked all over the committee, but that is not the point - the Blair/Murdoch relationship was a story.

This is the context in which Murdoch makes his bid for Manchester United. It could provide an unexpected twist. Consider this question: What if the bid had been masterminded by someone other than Murdoch waving a cool half-billion pounds?

My guess is that Blair's instincts would have supported such a take-over, if that was the wish of the shareholders, recognising that the sport had already become commercialised in Britain and around the world. I doubt if he would have agreed with the sentimental notion that the current era, under the chairmanship of Martin Edwards, created a friendly community club that had suddenly become threatened by a media mogul. He is a supporter of the market economy; and of Newcastle United plc.

But it is not AN Other who wants to buy Manchester United. It is Murdoch, and this may make it more difficult for Blair to follow his instincts. (Privately Blair was supportive of Murdoch's decision not to publish Chris Patten's book on Hong Kong and China on commercial grounds. Why let one part of your business disrupt another? But publicly he could not express such a view because of suspicions that he held it only to keep in with Murdoch.) Imagine what the reaction will be if the football deal goes ahead: Murdoch clicks his fingers and Blair does the business. The issue is made more complicated when the "people" evidently do not approve of the owner of the "people's newspaper". Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the entrepreneur Murdoch and grieving football fans places Blair's twin themes about the importance of modernity and a sense of community into apparent conflict.

In other words, Murdoch, once a prized asset, has become something of a liability for Blair. And that means he will tread especially carefully in Murdoch's bid for Manchester United; more carefully than if it was anybody else. Which means, of course, that the relationship is becoming counterproductive for Murdoch as well. In an exquisite irony, the relationship is becoming for Blair rather like the one he has with trade unions. He has to show he is being especially tough in order to convince the wider world he is not in Murdoch's pocket. Perhaps Murdoch and the union leaders should all get together for a drink, and comfort each other.

There is a good up-market bar owned by Manchester United plc.

Steve Richards is the Political Editor of `New Statesman'