Matthew Norman's Media Diary

Sky's the limit for Tony's cronies
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The Independent Online

If there's one aspect of media life that worries me to bits, it is the fear that the relationship between the Government and Rupert Murdoch isn't as close as it should be. It is months now since Tony Blair was last recorded showing the requisite level of sycophancy expected of a British PM to the head of News Corp, when he told Mr Murdoch he was disgusted by the anti-American tone to the BBC's New Orleans coverage, and since then there's been very little.

You will share my intense relief, then, on learning that things are looking up, and for this we must thank my old friend Timmy Allan, the erstwhile deputy to Alastair Campbell who now handles the Sky account at his PR firm Portland. I say old friend, although in truth I've barely seen little Timmy since the 1998 night he was warned by a Bournemouth WPC for urinating in a hotel garden. But the affection lingers, and it's with pride that I read of a document, stolen from his briefcase, detailing how he thinks Sky should increase its influence with government. Among much else, he suggests that Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell should be taken on as joint host of a seminar "maximising creative industry benefit of television in the UK, followed by Westminster/Whitehall reception". I think we all know, from memory of the sadly denuded Gaming Bill, how impervious Tessa is to the lure of lobbyists. But a nice thought all the same.

Timmy further advocates a series of lunches hosted by James Murdoch at which Gordon Brown, Ruth Kelly, David Cameron and others should share their thinking on "perceptions of Sky, trends in broadcasting..." and so on. There is much else besides, including the intention to show how Sky is a major contributor not just to broadcasting "but other social issues, eg education". How exceedingly true this is, and how reassuring to know that that the Murdochs are committed to sorting out social problems in partnership with government.

IF TIMMY is furious about the sneaky leaking of his masterplan, he has every right to encamp on the highest moral ground. After all, he last came to our attention himself for passing a covertly recorded tape of that John Humphrys after-dinner speech to The Times, in what some paranoiacs thought a crude attempt to get New Labour's least-loved broadcaster sacked from the Today programme.

THE MORE I think about it, in fact, the more livid I get about the lazy notion that the Government and the Murdoch empire are the cosiest of bedfellows. If Sun editor Rebekah Wade happens to be a regular weekend guest at Chequers, that - as I'm bored to death repeating - is a purely social thing. And if Rebekah has given David Blunkett - her drinking buddy, of course, in the hours leading to that overhyped tiff with husband Ross Wade - a very lucrative weekly column to help bridge the gap between the incomes of a Cabinet minister and a backbencher, again it's a matter of personal friendship. Now no more, please, of this fanciful nonsense about a wildly incestuous Murdoch-New Labour cabal running the country.

WE WON'T comment today on Mr Blunkett's column, which includes a weekly epilogue from his guide dog, preferring to look at a Sun leader concerning a matter he doubtless avoided dealing with when Home Secretary - that of police officers driving too fast. "Every incident involving a police siren should be logged," this counsels, "and published on demand." Assuming no ironic intent, we would remind The Sun that last June it denounced "the red tape that now binds the police hand and foot", while it further declared, in 2002, that "our police are suffocating under a mountain of red tape". Such indecisiveness must be exhausting. Of course, there is one easy way to free police time, which is not get nicked for giving the old man a bit of a slap, but that's all forgotten now and we won't hear another word about it.

AT LAST, Andrew Neil nears the end of his epic quest to replace Boris Johnson at The Spectator. Andrew says he will reveal his decision on 10 February, and we count the moments. In the meantime, a former editor files his Spectator column from Rwanda, finding space for a perplexing self-enclosed item. "In Butare, Rwanda's second city," writes Charles Moore, "I notice a barber's shop which proudly entitles itself 'Nigger Boys Sunshine Saloon'." Always lovely to have the excuse. Next week, Charles dwells on an evening in with the DVD of The Dambusters.

HAS MELANIE Phillips ever been on better form in the Daily Mail? Perhaps it's Richard Littlejohn's return that has driven her to new heights, but I don't believe she has. Last week, the hyper-right-wing rantmistress addressed the scrapping of Radio 4's early morning "UK Theme", beginning with the confession that she has never heard it herself. Thankfully undeterred from pronouncing on the subject by anything so trifling as total ignorance of the subject, Mel spent the next 1,000 words pleading for the medley's survival.

"A country pulls together only if its people feel secure in their shared identity," she concludes. "And identity is about memory." Indeed it is. Precisely how the shared memory of something none of us have ever heard will bind us into one national organism I haven't quite worked out yet, but I'm sure it makes perfect sense, and hats off to Mad Mel yet again.

m.norman@independent.co.uk

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