Ministers hint at deal on Murdoch

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THE IDEA that Rupert Murdoch was an "evil figure" who had to be curbed by legislation was rejected by the Prime Minister's official spokesman yesterday.

But he did not rule out the possibility of a compromise Commons amendment to the Competition Bill that could deal more precisely with the "problem" of newspaper price wars.

And Clive Soley, influential chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, suggested that the director-general of Fair Trading should be able to take action against any business selling its product at below-cost for more than six months. "It seems to me that one answer is not to focus on newspapers. Then it is no longer about competitive pricing," he told The Independent; "it is about screwing the market."

Given the fact that 24 members of the current government and 55 existing Labour MPs signed Commons motions attacking Mr Murdoch's price wars in 1994, the chances of such a compromise being accepted are strong - even though it would involve a retreat from the hard line so far taken by Lord Simon of Highbury, the competition minister in the Lords.

After the Lords passed an anti-Murdoch amendment to the Competition Bill on Monday night - with 23 rebel Labour peers defying a Government instruction to vote it down - No 10 yesterday launched a passionate attack on Mr Murdoch's critics.

The spokesman said that there was no question of the Government accepting the amendment when it came before the Commons. "This amendment will not become law," he said.

The amendment, sponsored by Lord McNally, a Liberal Democrat peer, and carried with a 28-vote majority, would specifically outlaw newspaper price cuts that threaten to "injure or eliminate" the competition.

It appeared that Tony Blair's hostility had been provoked by the fact that the amendment singled out the newspaper industry for special treatment - and put Mr Murdoch directly in its sights.

There is a widespread suspicion among senior ministers that the Prime Minister will not allow any action to be taken against Mr Murdoch, even indirectly. One senior government source has told The Independent that Mr Blair has issued a "hands-off" instruction to the Department of Trade and Industry.

But Mr Soley said: "We have to do something about the predatory price wars. Frankly, we are probably only months away from The Independent being destroyed, and then he [Mr Murdoch] will turn his guns on the Daily Telegraph. We have got to deal with it some way."

The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "The issue of predatory pricing is addressed in the Bill. There is a game in most of the media to suggest that Murdoch is this great evil figure."

As for the Lord amendment, he said: "It singles out one company in a way that is unnecessary and I think there is a lot of game-playing going on."

Lord McNally said yesterday that the present cut-price policy of the Times did not make sense unless it was to clear the field of two major competitors - The Independent and Daily Telegraph.

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