Blair doesn't need the 'Sun', he just thinks he does

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THERE HE was at Sir David English's funeral on Monday, sitting with Lord Rothermere and Mr Rupert Murdoch, afterwards - as the illustrated magazines like to put it - enjoying a joke with Mr Murdoch, and on Wednesday being attacked in the latter's Sun as the most dangerous man in Britain, as if he were a paedophile or even a football hooligan, though all Mr Tony Blair had done was show a preference for joining the European single currency sooner rather than later.

Then on Thursday the Government, represented by the increasingly - in his political not his bodily aspect - frail-looking Mr Chris Smith, announced that Test matches in England would not be restricted to terrestrial television and could in future be bid for by cable or satellite channels, including Mr Murdoch's Sky. What are we to make of it all? What indeed!

Let us begin with the new television arrangements. The cricket authorities are certainly happy with them, which, as Lady Bracknell might have remarked, is unfortunately no guarantee of respectability these days. They say that Mr Murdoch may not be the sole or even the principal beneficiary. But it is difficult to discern what other person or organisation they have in mind.

Mr Murdoch has already bought up rugby league and is in the process of ruining the game, not least by insisting that fine old clubs such as Bradford Northern adopt silly names, in this case Bradford Bulls. In a different way he is doing the same to rugby union, having bought up all internationals played at Twickenham together with English matches in Paris, the rugby union cup final and the principal English club games. In so doing he has set not only the English controlling authority against those of Scotland, Ireland and Wales but also authority against clubs.

To be fair to the Prince of Darkness (as John Milton was likewise), he has greatly improved both the extent of the coverage and its nature. He has done the same with overseas cricket. Rugby and cricket provide the bait for Mr Murdoch to hook the more prosperous male sections of society, who care little for all those terrible films and are immune to the charms of Mr Adam Boulton on Sky News or even of Ms Christine Aznavour on CNN, a boring but useful programme that comes with most of the Murdoch packages. For this reason I have never been able to understand the argument that Mr Murdoch is depriving the poor of their sporting comforts. It may be right or wrong - I believe it is wrong - that the BBC no longer shows English rugby internationals and will not in future show domestic Tests. But when I walk about my part of London I notice that the satellite dishes are mostly on the walls or roofs of houses occupied by the relatively poor. It may be that the more prosperous elements cunningly conceal their dishes, whether on aesthetic grounds or because concealment is required by the terms of their occupancy. Nevertheless, when England were playing various rugby matches last autumn, I (a Sky subscriber solely out of professional necessity) noticed a sharp increase in my popularity on Saturday afternoons among neighbours who were clearly not short of the odd bob.

So over television Mr Blair - for Mr Smith's announcement would not have been made without the authority of Mr Blair - has done his best to satisfy Mr Murdoch. Can he do the same over the euro? In Downing Street during the past year the comforting theory was that "Rupert", as he is familiarly called (much as Lady Thatcher invoked "Winston" from time to time), would somehow come round in the end, partly because of his regard for Mr Blair, but mainly because he would want to be, as always, on the winning side.

Mr Murdoch is a United States citizen out of convenience or, rather, business necessity. He is an Australian by birth. He cares nothing for, is positively opposed to, a union of states whose inarticulate major premise is of an interventionist, social-democratic nature, out of tune with the wider world of today. But it may be, on the other hand, that the wider world will become weary of that unrestricted international capitalism which has grown up since the mid-1970s. It will turn to something else. Then it will be Mr Murdoch, if he is still with us, who will appear the old-fashioned character.

In the meantime Mr Murdoch and Mr Blair will, like those married couples one reads about, go their separate ways, leading their own lives, while still remaining married to each other. The Murdoch ploy will be to excoriate Mr Gordon Brown, meanwhile rebuking Mr Blair for failing to control his Chancellor. There will be no divorce, no clean break. Indeed, it was noticeable that the Sun's article was couched in terms which would have seemed excessive even if addressed to W E Gladstone, say, or Abraham Lincoln.

Good sir, honest man that you are, please desist from what we can only regard as this rash course of action. That seemed to be the line, more or less. Those who compared the paper's untypically respectful performance to its attacks on Mr Neil Kinnock (its even more intemperate assaults on Mr Michael Foot seem to have been overlooked) either have forgotten what they were like or did not bother to read them with attention in the first place.

The truth is that Mr Blair does not need the Sun, any more than the Labour Party of pre-Blair days needed the Daily and Sunday Mirror. Hugh Cudlipp was always modest about the influence exercised by the papers he supervised. It was the party which attributed miraculous powers to them: ennobling their journalists, fawning on their editors and indulging Robert Maxwell in an embarrassed kind of way. Mr Kinnock was slipping shiftily into Maxwell's drinks parties at the Labour conference when he was refusing (at any rate officially) to meet Mr Murdoch's journalists at the behest of the corrupt print unions. It does not seem to have happened a decade but an entire age ago.

I do not want to attribute miraculous powers to Mr Alastair Campbell and Mr Peter Mandelson either. But in Mr Blair's period of opposition, certainly Mr Campbell and possibly Mr Mandelson as well said it would be marvellous, super, brilliant if not only the Sun but the Daily Mail also could be brought, as the phrase was, on side. Mr Blair duly went to Australia to perform before Mr Murdoch's minions. He also went to lunch with Lord Rothermere and Sir David. On both occasions he created a favourable impression.

Sir David has now gone to meet a proprietor greater even than Lord Rothermere. They were the principal supporters of Mr Blair. Mr Paul Dacre, the editor of the Mail, was always more sceptical, though scepticism is not precisely a quality one normally associates with Mr Dacre. Anyway, he is strongly opposed to the euro, as Lord Rothermere is not; and he is doubtful about the extent of Mr Blair's commitment to family values, of which Lord Rothermere is similarly a strong supporter, at any rate where the advancement of his own immediate family is concerned.

The Mail has been less firm a support than the Sun to Mr Blair. The Sun is now moving slowly in the Mail's direction. But neither paper will wholeheartedly back the Conservative Party so long as it is led by Mr William Hague. It will not make much difference either way, though the politicians think it will.

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