Has there been a secret deal between David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch?
That is what Lord Mandelson believes. Last month, the Business Secretary suggested in the House of Lords that in return for The Sun's enthusiastic support (which I described last week) the Tory leader has agreed to legislate to ensure that BSkyB, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch, should remain pre-eminent in the pay-television sector.
According to Mandelson, Murdoch wants to reduce the power of the regulator Ofcom and dispense with impartiality laws that govern British television. There is no doubt that he is correct about this since in a speech last August, James Murdoch – Rupert's son and presumed heir – made precisely these arguments. This has led speculation that the Murdochs want to change Sky News, at present constrained by British impartiality laws, into something resembling their unashamedly right-wing Fox News channel in America.
The plot thickened last week when John Ryley, head of Sky News, said in a speech at Cambridge that the impartiality laws should be scrapped. We may be sure he was reflecting what he thinks are the views of both Murdochs. He also pooh-poohed Lord Mandelson's suggestion that Sky News might follow The Sun in promoting the Tories. Ryley's speech was perplexing in one respect. While arguing for the removal of impartiality laws, he said it would make no difference to Sky News, since its audience wanted impartiality, and it was "good business" for it to remain impartial. If that is so, why bother to get rid of the laws at all?
There was another intervention, every bit as calculated, a few days before Ryley's speech. Matthew Freud, the PR mover and shaker and Rupert Murdoch's son-in-law, was quoted in The New York Times on Sunday attacking Fox News, which he said "embarrassed" and "sickened" some members of the Murdoch family.
An accomplished PR man like Freud does not speak off-script. Moreover, his views partly echo those attributed to Rupert Murdoch himself in Michael Wolff's recent biography. It seems that even Murdoch may regard Fox as too raucously right-wing. Last week's expression of total support for Roger Ailes, the president of Fox News, from Chase Carey, president of the parent company News Corp, can be reasonably interpreted as a piece of corporate protocol. It was Freud who was reflecting the true party line.
What are we to make of all this? A reasonable interpretation might go as follows. The Murdochs want to get rid of the impartiality laws so they can re-fashion Sky News as and how they please. But through Freud they also want to convey that they won't turn it into Fox News, which is regarded as beyond the pale even in America, and would be unacceptable in Britain – a less right-wing country.
Lord Mandelson's vision of Sky News one day rooting for the Tories in the manner of The Sun is probably far-fetched. Being a born conspirator, he tends to see conspiracies everywhere. On the other hand, during Rupert Murdoch's long years of support for New Labour, he got to know the heart and mind of the Sun king very well.
There is evidently some sort of understanding between Cameron and the Murdochs. Whether it is an actual deal, time alone will tell.
Lady Antonia ends feud with blackballed Daily Mail
Last week The Daily Mail serialised Lady Antonia Fraser's diaries, a portrait of her marriage to Harold Pinter. Why the Mail? We may be sure the paper does not burn a candle for her or the left-wing playwright, and that for their part the two of them did not exactly venerate The Daily Mail. Presumably, it simply offered more money than its rivals, and money has a way of making one forget old enmities. They went deep in this case.
In 1975, when Lady Antonia's affair with Pinter came to light, the Mail's Nigel Dempster wrote a piece which dug about a good deal in her previous liaisons. This enraged her husband, the Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser, a decent and honourable man, and his friend and fellow Catholic, the journalist Paul Johnson.
Sir Hugh and Johnson tried to get their revenge, in a very English way, by blackballing Vere Harmsworth, proprietor of The Daily Mail, from the Beefsteak Club. He had been put up for membership by the Earl of Arran, who wrote a column for the London Evening News, and one of his seconders was Lord Hartwell, proprietor of The Daily Telegraph.
Private Eye's peerless Grovel column got hold of a letter Lord Arran had written to the Duke of Devonshire, the Beefsteak's most senior member, about the blackballing. While deprecating what he described as "the vicious attacks by the odious Dempster on Antonia", Lord Arran was worried he would have to resign his Beefsteak membership should the blackball be maintained. In the event, Harmsworth, who resisted invitations to sack Dempster, withdrew.
Beyond the grave, Nigel must be smiling in wonderment at the turn of events after nearly 35 years. It shows even the bitterest newspaper quarrels can eventually be smoothed over.
Moore and Moir are sisters in arms once more
One of the longest unexplained absences in British journalism has finally come to an end. On 19 October The Mail On Sunday columnist Suzanne Moore wrote an item criticising The Daily Mail's Jan Moir, whose column about the death of the pop singer Stephen Gately had provoked widespread charges of homophobia.
The following week, Moore got fully into her stride in a second piece in which she wrote about Moir's "warped opinions" and banged on in a rather unsisterly way – whereupon she put down her pen for two-and-a-half months. Her fans were not offered any explanation, and had to endure a succession of Sundays without the benefit of the views of The Mail On Sunday's sole left-wing columnist. Her friends say the reason for Moore's prolonged absence was partly personal, but that she could also not bear the idea of working for the same company as Moir. Happily, on 9 January, Moore climbed back into the saddle. Four days later she tweeted: "It's true that I'm going to become editor of The Independent. Just got to sort out a few minor details."
I don't think she means it.