Matthew Norman's media diary
No 'holiday season' card for Henry
Monday 31 December 2007
An intriguing New Year conundrum awaits John Hutton, the plain- speaking Secretary of State for Business. Hutton, who so selflessly consented to serve under the man he so presciently predicted would make "a fucking awful Prime Minister", faces a hideous decision over BSkyB's shareholding in ITV.
James Murdoch bought a 17.5 per cent stake in the network 13 months ago, you will recall, for two transparent reasons: to block Richard Branson's plans to merge his Virgin operation with ITV; and to buy some leverage so far as neutralising a competitor for sports rights. Alas, alas and thrice alas, that cunning plan is now threatened by the Competition Commission's recommendation that Sky be allowed to keep a stake of less than 7.5 per cent.
A recommendation is all it is, though, and as we know, these can be ignored if ministers choose. The pressure on Hutton to do just that will be intense. Apart from any broad hints Gordon may offer with the future support of the Murdoch press in mind, the Culture Secretary James Purnell may want a cosy chat. He is friendly with Tim Allan, Alastair Campbell's one-time deputy who used to work for Sky, and whose PR firm Portland has Sky as a client.
And what, you have to wonder, of Tony Blair? He has form as a Murdoch lobbyist, once spending ages on the phone to Silvio Berlusconi trying to facilitate a satellite deal on Rupert's behalf. Whether he'll reprise the role by ringing such an erstwhile Blairite ultra as John Hutton, who can say? But if I were Richard Branson, I'd organise a Freedom of Information request for 2 January and have it repeated once a week asking whether the former PM has had any recent contact with the Business Secretary; and, if so, what exactly they discussed.
In a rare foray into the world of publishing, I am worried for Bloomsbury's founder Nigel Newton, an Anglophile American believed to be directly modelled on the Dan Aykroyd character in Trading Places, now that he can no longer rely on J K Rowling for his profits. Nigel is said to be exhibiting signs of stress, and we will be keeping a close eye on his post-Potter performance throughout 2008.
A public falling out between friends is always upsetting to behold, but seldom more so than in the case of Conrad Black and Henry Kissinger. Taking a moment from preparing for stir to write in The New York Sun, Conrad reflects in a typically bombast-free, more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone on his old chum's treachery. All those rides on the Hollinger jet, all the lavish rewards for a sinecure on the board, all those merry chats about the wit and wisdom of Richard Nixon... and at the end of it all, this odious ingrate only goes and says that his erstwhile benefactor was "probably guilty of something".
Conrad, still winning his rearguard struggle against succumbing to a sense of martyrdom, has all our sympathy. In losing respect now for a man he continued to worship long after the napalming of Vietnamese children, Conrad reaffirms the keenness of his grasp of moral priorities. Pray God that serves him well in jug.
Weren't you sickened, by the way, by how the godless worshippers of political correctness managed to expunge the word "Christmas" from so many festive greetings? "Dear Colleagues, This has been a remarkable year for our company..." wrote one PC Brigade officer in a touchingly personal Yuletide missive to staff. "May this holiday season and the days that follow bring you and yours great joy. Sincerely, Rupert Murdoch."
One employee to whom the season bought a joyous dollop of the exposure he craves was that dapper morsel, Irwin "Scoop" Stelzer. Apparently fatigued by his role as the Woodrow Wyatt de nos jours (and being a glorified lackey at his age must be exhausting), advancing causes close to his master's heart on the comment pages of Murdoch titles, Irwin produced a Sunday Times splash about a Bank of England source moaning about the paralysing effect of low morale at the top of government. When the Bank's governor Mervyn King denied being that source, Irwin exposed him, saying the remark was an aside over lunch which, not being explicitly off the record, he felt entitled to use.
Irwin's ruthlessness in jeopardising King's career by outing him as the source of a comment clearly intended as a confidence will stand him in excellent stead for his new role, as a showbiz reporter on the News of the World.
Meanwhile, the full list of dates and venues for favourite columnist Jon Gaunt's roadshow ("Larger than life itself and right in your face. Ask any questions you like") has been posted on www.gauntyfansite.co.uk. Jon Gaunt's first Q&A evening is in St Albans on 25 January. But I have my eye on 27 Februrary at Southend Palace Theatre, and after recording a Christmas message to Gaunty and his TalkSport listeners, I don't expect to pay for tickets.
The fondest of farewells, finally, to Roger Alton, who leaves the editorship of The Observer after 10 years. No one has exhibited a stronger natural immunity to editoritis (the psychiatric condition also known as Andrew Neil Syndrome By Proxy) than this most unflinchingly self-deprecating of men. One of the most energetic, inventive and generally outstanding journalists of recent decades, it is an understatement to observe that Roger will be missed.
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