Media: Who will bid highest for Murdoch's political allegiance?

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The Independent Online
Rupert Murdoch has always held an uncomplicated view of the relationship between his politics and his media interests. 'Ask not what you can do for the party, but what the party can do for you,' is his implicit maxim, distorting President Kennedy's famous exhortation.

So Mr Murdoch's remark to the German magazine Der Spiegel that he 'could even imagine supporting the British Labour leader, Tony Blair' should not be read as an imminent conversion to democratic socialism or a sneaking feeling that the corporate state may, after all, have the edge over red- blooded capitalism. It stems, like all his political shifts and pronouncements, from a realistic calculation of where his business interests lie.

He has always been inclined to snuggle up to people who have power or who look like gaining it. When he bought the Sun in 1969, the paper was a staunch supporter of Harold Wilson's Labour government and maintained that position in the 1970 election, which Labour lost. By the 1974 election the Sun had discarded its socialist convictions, though without going the whole hog for Edward Heath's Conservatives.

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was the Tory leader and the Sun supported her so enthusiastically that its editor, Larry Lamb, was awarded a knighthood. It was not long before Mr Murdoch received a more tangible reward. His controversial acquisition of the Times and Sunday Times in 1981 was made much easier by the decision of John Biffen, then Secretary of State for Trade, not to refer the deal to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, despite pressure from the papers' journalists. Six years later Mr Murdoch cashed in more of his goodwill chips when his purchase of Today was similarly nodded through.

In Australia there has been a comparable pattern. In 1972 Mr Murdoch's papers gave such fervent support to the Labour leader, Gough Whitlam, that Murdoch described his journalists as 'foot soldiers in Whitlam's campaign'. Only three years later the same papers were urging the Governor- General, Sir John Kerr, to dismiss Mr Whitlam - and when he obliged, they came out strongly for the Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser, who easily won the ensuing election. In 1979, when Mr Murdoch established his Australian television network by buying stations in Sydney and Melbourne, Mr Fraser's government raised no regulatory objections.

In 1983 the Murdoch papers switched their support to the Labour leader, Bob Hawke, who duly won. When Mr Murdoch bought the Melbourne Herald group in 1987, Mr Hawke supported the acquisition, although it gave Mr Murdoch an overwhelmingly dominant position in the Australian press.

And in the United States, his links with local and national politicians allowed him to build a major press and television empire with the minimum of regulatory interference.

In this light, his flirtation with Labour has a harsh logic. While even he can have no plan for further media acquisitions in Britain, he is keen to keep what he has. It has long been Labour's intention to look at how to curb media monopolies when it gains office. If Mr Murdoch could persuade Mr Blair to put any such plans on the back burner in exchange for editorial support, it would be a tempting - if Faustian - bargain.

The effect on his relations with the Conservatives is also intriguing. The Government has been toying with two potential pieces of legislation that could broadly be described as anti-press. The White Paper on privacy, which would curb the worst excesses of tabloid intrusion, was ready for publication last month, until the Prime Minister backed off at the last minute. And the imposition of VAT on newspapers, narrowly avoided in last autumn's budget, is on the agenda again this year.

So Mr Murdoch's apparently throwaway remark to Der Spiegel can be interpreted as a challenge to both Labour and the Conservatives: how much is my support worth to you? To a Tory MP in a marginal seat, the answer is: quite a lot. For Mr Blair, leading a party instinctively hostile to Mr Murdoch and all his papers stand for, the equation is not so simple.