Why is Murdoch supping with the young Tory contender? Because Hague could help him if Tony Blair ever dares to bite the hand that fed him ...

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The Independent Online
One of the most wondrous aspects of Britain's ancient, unwritten constitution is that it occasionally spawns brand new rituals and conventions which swiftly acquire sacred status. Thus it is becoming an accepted practice that anyone seriously aspiring to become Prime Minister of this land must first symbolically kiss the ring of Rupert Murdoch.

Young William Hague has learnt this fast. On the night he emerged as the favourite to lead the Conservatives, he passed up celebrations with his jubilant supporters, choosing instead to sup with the Australian-American media magnate at a secret dinner hosted by Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, a former head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall - or even in the soup - at this soiree. Did old Rupert draw upon his personal experience and dispense some kind, avuncular advice on how to rebuild an almost bankrupt enterprise into an awesome force? Or did young Hague cut to the quick and hurl the question which probably plagues him - have Murdoch's muckrakers got anything on him?

Given the rumours swirling around about his sexuality - rather demeaningly, Hague has even been forced to publicly deny that he is gay - it would be surprising if both the Sun and the News of the World haven't opened a file on him.

But, Murdoch appears impressed by the young contender. The day after their secret dinner, the Sun shone a critical spotlight not on his bald pate, but on Ken Clarke's many alleged political shortcomings. Then Britain's biggest-selling daily fuelled the momentum behind the Hague campaign by running a front-page story describing the former Welsh Secretary as "on a roll".

At least Hague - a very busy boy these days - only had to take a short, chauffeur-driven ride across central London to pay court to Britain's most powerful press baron. Tony Blair, you will recall, had to take a 12,000-mile flight to northern Australia to perform the same ritual.

James Curran, Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths' College, London, has suggested that media historians will recall as a key moment the Labour leader's pilgrimage to Queensland in 1994 in much the same way as medieval historians remember the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV's homage to Pope Gregory VII in the snow at Canossa in 1077. "Both occasions," he observed, "symbolised political obeisance to a new power."

Yet Murdoch remains terribly modest about the power he wields. So do the senior executives he employs at Wapping. Last week, in a debate staged by the Media Society, the Sun's political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, said it would be daft to say it was the Sun wot swung it for Blair on 1 May. All the Sun did in the general election was give a "fair wind" to the other side, which may have made a "small difference". Peter Riddell, assistant political editor of the Times, echoed that assessment, arguing: "Nothing we said or wrote mattered a damn."

Perhaps, as these two pundits suggest, Major was doomed as far back as Black Wednesday in 1992 when Britain crashed out of the ERM and interest rates shot through the roof. But that isn't, in my view, what turned Murdoch against him. What really did it for Major was his courageous and principled decision to push through restrictions on cross-media ownership which curbed both Murdoch's News Corporation and the Mirror Group. Virginia Bottomley, the then Heritage Secretary, stoutly defended media "plurality and diversity" in the interests of a healthy democracy. A brave act, for it is always easier for power-seeking politicians to champion rapacious media conglomerates than to challenge them.

Tony Blair took the easy route in opposition, buttering up every press baron in town while Labour's media spokesman advocated an effective free- for-all.

Things are a little better now that Labour is in power. In his first major statement, the new Heritage Secretary, Chris Smith, signalled that he had no plans to alter the so-called 20 per cent rule, which bars media groups that account for more than a fifth of national newspaper circulation from owning an ITV station. "The principle has to be the safeguarding of diversity," declared Smith, in a return to the sort of language we used to expect to hear from Labour spokesmen.

Some defenders of pluralism and diversity are even starting to fantasise that Blair may feel emboldened by his landslide victory to push through a few policies that would have Murdoch spitting with rage. Labour's stated intention to strike up a better balance between the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy is obviously bad news for both the Sun and the News of the Screws. Murdoch would also be irate if Blair became seriously committed to European integration, for the EU has the potential to regulate his media empire in a way no British government would ever dare.

Even the suspicion that Blair might be harbouring such thoughts gives Murdoch an incentive to ensure that the Conservatives swiftly knock themselves into a coherent and effective opposition. For, what the Murdoch media says and does matters more than a damn when the two major parties are more evenly matched.

That's what last week's dinner was about. Murdoch is helping Hague because Hague could help him. The Tory boy needs to be built up into a serious contender for Number 10 to make sure that the current Prime Minister keeps on kissing Rupert's ring. Otherwise, there is a slight danger that Tony Blair might get uppity and be tempted to bite the hand that fed himn