Matthew Norman's Media Diary

No place for conspiracy theories...

AS ALWAYS when the delectable scent of mild governmental scandal is on the breeze, the question is cherchez le Murdoch. With John Prescott and the super-casino man, the search is gratifyingly brief. Lobbying for Philip Anschutz was one Matthew Freud, Rupert's son-in-law and host, we learn, of a dinner party that gathered Mr Anschutz and our excellent media, culture and sport secretary Tessa Jowell, the genius nominally responsible for the liberalisation of gaming law.

Before anyone succumbs to conspiracy theorising, we ought to make it clear that this soirée had nothing to do with casinos. The fact that Matthew's Freud Communications is retained for the Anschutz Entertainment Group as "strategic consultants" is irrelevant. In just the way that Mr Prescott spent his time at Mr Anschutz's Colorado ranch discussing William Wilberforce and the harvesting of sugar beet, so Tessa failed to divulge any information "that was not freely available in the newspapers". On other occasions, as when reneging on her predecessor's deal to keep live Test cricket on terrestrial TV after being lobbied by Matthew's brother-in-law James Murdoch, the top man at Sky, she has deigned to discuss commercial matters with those bidding for lucrative deals. This time, it was entirely different.

There are other hints of eerie coincidence, such as the departure of a senior member of Matthew's staff a year ago to work as special adviser for a certain Tessa Jowell. But those of us increasingly fatigued by the incessant sneering and cynicism that attends reporting of Government affairs accept that Tessa and Mr Anschutz passed a delightful evening discussing Proust, athletics, comparative methods of growing sweet potatoes and the vexing question of whatever happened to "Barbie Girl" singer Lene from Aqua.

Warmest congratulations to Matthew, then, for keeping even the appearance of impropriety at his table. I'm so impressed that just this once we won't pose the usual question to Professor Steve Jones and other leading geneticists (if it really is all about heredity, how exactly did we get from Sigmund to Matthew in just three generations?).

* I ALSO decline to bore you with another round of the dinner party game (perhaps they played it that night?) New Labour-Murdoch Connections, in which you have to produce a circular loop of at least five links, but preferably more, between the two interlocking factions, ending where you began. All right then, just this one. Tessa Jowell is chummy with Matthew and his wife Liz Murdoch, brother of James (ibid), who are also close mates with Rebekah Wade, who pays an estimated £150,000 per annum for her drinking buddy David Blunkett to write the Sun column in which, when she seemed certain to be sacked over the alleged Italian activities of her estranged husband David Mills, who worked for Silvio Berlusconi, who came close once to doing a satellite TV deal with Rupert Murdoch which Tony Blair himself attempted to broker, Mr Blunkett came riding to the defence of Tessa Jowell.

*MEANWHILE, DISTURBING signs that Mr Blair may be forced to publish details of encounters with Rupert. Richard Thomas, the so-called Information Commissioner, said last week that the dates of some chats between the two should be revealed, despite Downing Street's insistence that any disclosure would limit the PM's ability to have "free and frank discussions". This is absurd. It's almost as if some people believe that the Murdoch empire and New Labour form a cabal that runs the country. Leave them in peace.

* FOR THE second consecutive week, Mary Ann Sieghart enchants Times readers with news of a recent bee sting to the sole of her foot. In the seven days between reports, readers and colleagues have offered suggestions about treating the sting, from homeopathic remedies to the prophylactic advice that she consider wearing a pair of shoes in the garden. We hope and assume that there will be more to come this week and for many weeks to come. Keep it going, Mary-Ann. I'm telling you, girl, there's a book in this.

* A FOND farewell to John Barratt, the former umpire whose career as a Wimbledon commentator has ended after many decades. If invariably it seemed that John was describing a match taking place on a court adjacent to the one being televised, his work was all the better for that, and we wish him well. As for John McEnroe, he's coming on well as a commentator, and it's always intriguing to hear him on the problem of players choking with nerves when poised to win. I met him a few years ago on a night when I'd had a few, and I raised his defeat to Ivan Lendl from a two-set lead in the 1984 French Open final. He didn't seem keen to debate the psychology of choking then (in fact came within an ace of a classic explosion). Best save the insights for the BBC.

* FINALLY, TO the other sporting event that ended yesterday, and the Daily Mirror musings of Alastair Campbell about Germany's hosting of the World Cup. "A succession of German ambassadors to London have beaten a path to my door to ask how I think they can improve their country's image," is his typically self-effacing and convincing intro. "Those ambassadors used to talk specifically about Hitler's shadow ... It was nowhere to be felt on Tuesday." Astonishing what a few chats with Ali can do for a nation's image. The man really ought to go into public relations. I wonder if there might be an opening for him at Freud's?

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