Blair is top speaker at Murdoch conference

Media tycoon's invitation to 'significant statesman' seen as evidence of warming relationship
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair, the Labour leader, has accepted an invitation from Rupert Murdoch to provide the keynote address at his media empire's worldwide management conference in Australia, it was confirmed yesterday.

Mr Blair's decision to speak at the three-yearly conference will be seen as further evidence of a creeping rapprochement between Labour and the media tycoon whose Tory-supporting UK papers have for so long been the bane of the party. A spokesman for News International, which owns the Times and Sun, confirmed Mr Blair's acceptance yesterday: "He is a significant statesman who we felt had something interesting to say."

The two men have met several times the past year, including a dinner last autumn, at which their wives were also present. Mr Murdoch is known to be unhappy at the Government's recent announcement on cross-media ownership reform, which could effectively cap his media interests in the UK.

However, the benefits of any entente would be mutual. While the Sun's hostility may not have lost the Labour Party the 1992 general election its stance did not help the party and Mr Blair is keen to ensure at least fair treatment from the Murdoch press next time round.

The invitation was extended to the Labour leader a month ago. The spokesman added: "I don't think you should you see any link between this and the editorial lines of our newspapers." Mr Blair has written for almost all national newspapers, usually in response to requests from the papers, but has written most articles for the Sun. He is writing an article for the Sun's sister paper the News of the World this Sunday.

A spokesman for Mr Blair said yesterday that the Labour leader's articles in the Murdoch tabloids always produced a "big response and a favourable response" from the public, but also from Labour Party members. There was some "whingeing" from party members about "supping with the devil", he said, but many more were pleased that Labour was getting its message across to the kinds of voters it needs to win over.

The Labour leader is the only European speaker at the conference, to be held on Hayman, one of the Whitsunday Passage group of islands, in a fortnight. The bill also includes Sir Roger Douglas, a former New Zealand finance minister, William Kristol, editor and publisher of the Standard in the US, and James Austin, a professor at Harvard Business School. Mr Murdoch's apparent desire to rebuild bridges with administrations his empire may have offended appears to be confirmed by the invitation to the deputy prime minister of Malaysia, Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

The Malaysian government severed trade relations with Britain after the press suggested "sweeteners'" were being paid to enable UK firms to win government contracts. The final straw appeared to be an article in the Sunday Times alleging that Malaysia's prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, was in line for a personal bribe. Malaysia is a key market for Mr Murdoch's Star TV.