Murdoch in secret trips to Chequers

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The Independent Online
RUPERT MURDOCH has been the guest of Tony Blair at Chequers, the Prime Minister's country home, at least twice since Labour won the general election last May.

Sources at News Corporation, Mr Murdoch's media company, have also confirmed that in the run-up to the election, Mr Blair was a frequent visitor to the tycoon's London home.

News of the close contacts between the two men will severely embarrass the Prime Minister, who is trying to shake off allegations that he assisted Mr Murdoch on a business deal in Italy. Until now, it has always been assumed that the high-point of Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch's association had been a trip by the then Leader of the Opposition to address a News Corporation executive conference in Australia. However, The Independent has learned that their contact has been more regular - raising serious questions about the propriety of Mr Blair's dealings with the magnate.

Mr Murdoch is said by News Corporation sources to have visited the Prime Minister at Chequers on two Sundays since the election. The two men were also meeting before the election, at Mr Murdoch's luxury suite in St James's in central London.

In the election campaign, Mr Murdoch went a long way towards guaranteeing Mr Blair victory when the Sun, his traditionally Tory-leaning paper, came out in favour of Labour.

Another Murdoch newspaper, the Times, admitted yesterday that Mr Blair interceded on his behalf on a recent visit to Italy. Mr Blair asked Romani Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister what his government's reaction would be if Mr Murdoch bought a controlling interest in an Italian television group. No 10 has attempted to play down the links between the two men, initially dismissing reports of Mr Blair's assistance in Italy as a "complete joke".

The detailed allegations of the meetings were put to Downing Street last night and a spokesman for the Prime Minister said: "Our response is that we do not comment on private meetings or conversations the Prime Minister may or may not have had."

The Prime Minister was facing a call to make a statement to the Commons and his official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, is to be summoned by a committee of MPs to be questioned about the handling of the affair, including Tory claims that denials were misleading.

The Commons Committee on Public Administrations chaired by Rhodri Morgan, a Labour MP, is expected to recommend new rules of conduct should be drawn up for Prime Ministers and their involvement with private companies when they go "batting for Britain" abroad as then Lady Thatcher with arms sales.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman last night again defended No 10 and Mr Blair.

"The whole thing is a load of old baloney," he said. "Tony Blair has met Murdoch, Montgomery, [David Montgomery, chief executive of Mirror Group newspapers] and he has a meeting with Tony O'Reilly [chairman of Independent Newspapers, owner of The Independent]. He has met every significant media owner in the country since the election and the majority of industrialists."

Publisher HarperCollins has reached a financial settlement with its former publisher Stuart Proffitt. He left the company over its refusal to publish Chris Patten's Hong Kong book.

Blair left in lurch, page 4