People & Buisness: Get Murdoch to call Mars

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RUPERT MURDOCH has had a pretty smooth ride on this planet. Apart from the occasional glitch, the tycoon's plan to dominate the world's media has encountered few earthly impediments.

But now the mogul of Oz is about to face an extraterrestrial challenge of enormous proportions (cue the "X Files" theme tune).

My NASA sources tell me that comet Leonid is about to unleash a shower of meteorites into the atmosphere on 17 November.

Last time Leonid had a close encounter with our skies, in 1966, it knocked out a few spatial probes.

Scientists believe that this time the tally is going to be worse due to the rise in the number of capsules orbiting the earth.

Mr Murdoch's Sky TV satellites could be in Leonid's firing line, raising the frightening prospect of a blackout of the all-important England -Czech Republic Under 21 game, due on Sky Sports 2 on the evening of 17 November.

If the Manchester United affair is anything to go by, Mr Murdoch will try to avert the threat by taking over the comet and persuading it to avoid the earth for another 32 years. The phone of some Martian merchant banker is probably ringing as we speak...

THE TROUBLES of the would-be owner of Manchester United are nothing compared with the storm engulfing United's neighbours Manchester City.

The second division club's downtrodden fans yesterday had to cope with the sad news that Stephen Boler, their largest shareholder, had collapsed and died in South Africa.

The death of the millionaire entrepreneur, who made pounds 40m when he sold his stake in the Limelight kitchen and bathrooms group he founded, has triggered rumours of a bid for the Maine Road club.

I wonder whether Howard Davies, the (Manchester) City-mad head of the City (of London) watchdog, will throw his hat in the ring.

IT'S OFFICIAL. Archie Norman, the ASDA boss, has hit the bottom. The Tory party stalwart has put his weight behind the production of "a toilet roll for the New Millennium".

The new tissue, unveiled yesterday in the toilets of the posh Berkeley Hotel in London, is "much softer and much more absorbent" than conventional loo rolls, according to inventor Max Constantini. But at a development cost of pounds 145m, the new fad isn't exactly cheap.

Shareholders must hope that the money won't disappear down the drain.

JAN LESCHLY, the SmithKline Beecham boss, has a reputation for being tough on complacency, tough on the causes of complacency. So it is no surprise that the drugs giant has created the post of "crisis co-ordinator".

The crisis tsar will tour the globe to train SKB's employees on how to field press enquiries when a negative story breaks. The trainees will test their damage-limitation skills with "realistic" role-playing.

Apparently the failure of a mega-merger with a major competitor, called "Glaxo" for role-playing's sake, is not among the chosen scenarios.

YESTERDAY was shake-up day at Midland Bank. David Baker was appointed to the newly-created position of chief operating officer.

Mr Baker, currently executive director of the bank's Midlands division, will fill the void left by Richard Orgill, who has left his deputy chief executive post after five years to become global head of corporate and institutional banking at Midland's parent HSBC.

Mr Baker, a Midlands veteran of 36 years, will move to the bank's head office in London and report directly to chief executive Bill Dalton.

Mr Dalton, in turn, will take direct charge of "the bank who likes to say yes" branch network, its Treasury operations and the First Direct telephone banking venture.

NEWS of a double hit for Legal Aid Board chairman Sir Tim Chessels. He has been appointed chairman of BT's giant pension scheme and of Hermes Pension Management, the fund managers.

Sir Tim, a non-executive director of the electronic goods retailer Dixons, will replace another knight, Sir James Spooner, who has been chairman for six years and ends his term in office on 1 January.