Murdoch woos Blair with clandestine dinner

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A period of sustained courtship appears to be under way between Tony Blair, the Labour leader, and Rupert Murdoch, the head of News International.

A source close to the Labour leadership yesterday confirmed that in September Mr Murdoch hosted a dinner in the private room of a London restaurant for Mr Blair. Both men's wives attended, along with Gus Fischer, the chief executive of News International. In addition, Mr Fischer has met Mr Blair "two or three times". He has also shown the Labour leader around the company's newspaper plant at Wapping.

Speculation that Mr Murdoch would be prepared to see his newspaper empire swing behind Labour began the previous month when he told the German magazine Der Spiegel: "I could even imagine supporting Tony Blair."

The source described the dinner as a "getting-to-know-you session". Politics was high on the agenda, including the state of the Conservative Party and Labour's prospects. The meetings with Mr Fischer, on the other hand, discussed "issues of mutual interest", suggesting media as well as political questions.

While the Sun's hostility may not have lost the Labour Party the 1992 general election (despite the paper's own claims), its stance did not help the party and Mr Blair is keen to ensure, if not outright support, then at least fair treatment next time round. News International, meanwhile, has its eye on a potential future government, as well as the review of cross-media ownership currently being carried out by Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's press secretary, said: "News International is a very important newspaper group and it would be absurd if we did not do all we can to get a fair hearing from them. The Sun has a massive readership and on the several occasionsthey have carried articles from Tony Blair we have had tremendous feedback. We make no apology for seeking to get Labour's message across to millions of people."

Current relations with the Sun and News of the World are understood to be "very good". Within minutes of the Government's defeat on the VAT vote earlier this month, the Sun was on the phone requesting an article for the following morning's edition. Mr Blair duly obliged.

The rapprochement represents a shift in attitude on both sides. Labour boycotted News International titles for a year following the move to Wapping in 1986 that led to the dismissal of 5,000 print workers.

A spokeswoman for News International said last night that the dinner followed a party hosted by Mr Murdoch at his St James's Place apartment in central London, to which politicians from all parties were invited along with other media owners and editors.

"The next day, Mr Murdoch and his wife Anna, Mr Blair and Cherie, Gus Fischer and his wife, Gillian, had dinner. By all acounts this was a friendly chat and absolutely nothing of exclusive interest to News International was discussed. This is the last time Mr Murdoch spoke to Mr Blair."

She added that Mr Fischer "would be failing in his duty as chief executive of a major UK company" if he did not meet members of all political parties.