Matthew Norman's Media Diary

Will 'The Sun' go down on Blair?
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The Independent Online

WITH NEW Labour's disintegration gathering pace, I offer the briefest of apologies for returning to the subject that has dominated this column lately - the crucial relationship between the Government and News International; or more specifically, with the two Murdoch newspapers (The Sunday Times and News of the World have far more autonomy) that have devoted themselves so tirelessly to the cause of Tony Blair.

For the first time in a decade, there are faint signs that The Times is tiring of him, and that only obedience to its proprietor prevents it joining all other vaguely credible titles in suggesting to that it's time to make that call to Pickfords. For a couple of days last week, The Times even concentrated on the trio of embarrassments known as Triple Whammy Wednesday, although it recovered superbly on Friday. When all else splashed with various governmental woes, can anyone guess what Times guv'nor Robert Thomson declared champion of his news list?... the threat by four wealthy chaps to sue the Liberal Democrats for the return of £2.4m given as loans.

With the local elections imminent and the Lib Dems surging in the polls, it's not a huge struggle to suss out the rationale, and if Robert could subdue any residual professional pride by confining Messrs Prescott and Clarke to front-page one-paragraph sidebars, hats off to him for that.

The obvious danger for Robert is that all the transparent front-page diversions from Blairite crises cast him in the role as loyal first mate to a captain facing a mutiny. If Mr Blair is forced to stand down shortly, will Mr Murdoch - First Lord of the Admiralty in this witless and frankly confused metaphor - save him for obeying his own orders? Or will he shoot him (shunt off to some well-paid corporate sinecure, in other words) for being so closely associated with the deposed commander? I suspect we'll find out soon enough.

AS FOR The Sun, despite its weak circulation it remains by far the single most powerful media influence on Mr Blair's chances of limping on for a couple of years. The scorn of the up-market press he can live with, but the moment The Sun scurries away (the maritime metaphor has moved on, sad to report, to rats and sinking ships) is the moment he'll know for certain that he is finished. For now, it seems that editor Rebekah Wade, doubtless taking instruction from Mr Murdoch's bespoke 747 in the skies, is holding fire.

However, the continuing publication of drinking-buddy David Blunkett's column looks ever more bold. Allowing Blunkers to indulge a personal feud with Charles Clarke, however heavily coded, over the non-deportation of foreign cons seems an eccentric judgment on what intrigues her readership. For the record, 288 have gone missing since Mr Clarke became Home Secretary, whereas 711 vanished under what we probably shouldn't call Mr Blunkett's watch. No doubt he'll wish to clarify this on Thursday.

NOW CONSIDERING Mr Clarke, I hope I speak for us all when I say that the Guild of Clueless Liberal Columnists has taken his strictures on incompetence very much to heart. Many media academics believe that his lecture on the matter last week was the most impressive instance of self-irony for a very long time; since the previous Saturday, in fact, when Arsène Wenger told a BBC reporter that Spurs manager Martin Jol had to be lying when he denied seeing an incident on the Highbury pitch.

THE ISSUE of the salaries paid to British media titans fizzled out so quickly that the cynic might wonder whether, after getting so aerated about what Jonathan Ross and the others are paid by BBC radio, certain papers became fearful of revelations about what they pay their own stars. Shamefully, The Guardian's Polly Toynbee is being teased on this by an element of what she considers the free world's most poisonous press. Recalling the paean of praise Polly wrote for the Scandinavian practice of making incomes a matter of easily accessible public record, Sunday Telegraph diarist Tim Walker invited Polly to cough to her own Guardian salary. So far she remains unwontedly coy, and quite right too. Consistency is the mark of the mediocre, Pol, so you hang on in there. Keep schtum and the moment will pass.

IT NEVER rains... Polly is also under attack, would you believe it, from Tessa Jowell, who responded to a cogent demolition of her demented liberalisation of gambling with an unintentionally satirical defence ("All British casinos must enforce high standards of social responsibility," wrote Tessa in The Guardian. Very droll.) Just to reiterate that Polly is absolutely right about this one, and that her objections to gaming in no way stem from any misguided sense of knowing best what the working-class should do with its money, let alone any inherent distaste for taking wild risks. No one who put her name to a book entitled Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain having recently put a son through Bedales can sensibly be accused of that.

ALSO UNWONTEDLY reticent, finally, is Jonathan Pearce, the football commentator who appeared on BBC1's sadly doomed Grandstand recently to reveal exclusively that Alan Curbishley would be appointed as England coach in a tripartite arrangement involving Trevor Brooking and Stuart Pearce. Now that the job has been offered to Luiz Felipe Scolari, a public apology must be imminent.

m.norman@independent.co.uk

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