Murdoch woos Germany's `Blair'

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The Independent Online
RUPERT MURDOCH is about to make a strategic investment in Germany, and not just in the Teutonic blood-and-sex television station he controls there. Mr Murdoch is looking to purchase a commodity in which he has already cornered the market in other parts of the world: politicians.

The tycoon flew into Germany at the weekend, ostensibly to deliver a speech at a media forum in Cologne. The event is organised by Wolfgang Clement, Social Democrat Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia and the closest ally of Gerhard Schroder, who has been called Germany's Blair, and is likely to become Chancello in September. According to Social Democrat sources, a secret meeting between Mr Murdoch and Mr Schroder had been lined up on the fringes of the forum.

There can be little doubt that the purpose of this encounter is to help oil the wheels of the media machine that is about to roll into Germany. Astutely, Mr Murdoch has concluded that Mr Schroder is worth cultivating.

After his ignominious retreat from Italy, Mr Murdoch is making a second attempt to gain entry into a market that has so far eluded his grasp. Continental Europe is largely Murdoch-free, mainly because the politicians and media elites have successfully barricaded themselves from the buccaneer's incursions.

The European Commission has come close to declaring him Public Enemy Number One, regarding the Murdoch empire as the monopolistic purveyor of Anglo-Saxon trivia. His most important acquisition on the continent to date is the 49.9 per cent stake in Vox, a flaccid television station whose viewing figures come alive only when its sexually deprived audience switch on after midnight.

Now Mr Murdoch is offering to put Vox on the map. The station, at present enjoyed by 3 per cent of Germans, is to receive a huge cash investment, with the aim of raising its market share to 10 per cent. "If we had unfettered control of Vox then yes - whether it takes DM700m (pounds 240m) or DM900m (pounds 310m), we are willing to do whatever is necessary to make Vox a major force," he told journalists.

To raise the station's profile, Vox is to be given access to Mr Murdoch's Fox Studios, the producers of Titanic and the repository of mainstream Hollywood movies, the likes of which have never been shown on the station. There will also be what he called "quality" news programmes on Vox, though Mr Murdoch did not explain what he meant by that.

He did, however, complain about Vox's other owners, especially Bertelsmann. The German media group, which also has world ambitions, has thwarted previous attempts to turn Vox into a station that people want to watch, because its success would imperil the profits of Bertelsmann's other TV channels. That situation has not changed, but both groups now have bigger fish to fry in the digital domain. Mr Murdoch's digital network in Britain is about to take off, but in the German market - the second most lucrative in the world - similar preparations were recently thrown out by the European Commission. Bertelsmann was one of two groups behind the losing bid.

Enter Rupert Murdoch, who had once flirted with digital television in Germany but backed out. He now has technology as well as programming to offer at a competitive price, given that much of the adaptation would involve nothing more strenuous than translation of his soaps, movies and sporting commentary into German. He is talking to both Bertelsmann and Leo Kirch, the other would-be digital mogul, possibly playing one off against the other. In this battle for the television of the future, Vox is clearly just the bait, and whatever investment plans Mr Murdoch may tout may be no more than a ruse.

His gigantic plans to build a network transcending national borders require political support, however, especially in heavily regulated Germany. With the Kohl government, Mr Murdoch could cut no deal.

Enter Mr Schroder, the new kid on the block, who needs help to defeat Helmut Kohl in September's elections. One can already see the headlines: "The Sun says: Vote Schroder".

Perhaps not. Lacking newspapers in Germany, there is little Mr Murdoch can do at this point to boost the chancellor-candidate at this stage, other than endorsing him in the media owned by others.

Which is exactly what he seems to be doing in an interview in today's Spiegel magazine. "I admire Chancellor Kohl for his achievements during German unification and his political resoluteness," he said.

"But he is also responsible for the economic standstill, high taxes and social levies that make it hard for Germany to keep up in the modern world."

And Germany's development, as everyone familiar with Mr Murdoch's media outlets knows, is an issue very close to the tycoon's heart.

`I don't why people are so afraid'

AT A rare press briefing, ahead of the Cologne book fair, Mr Murdoch said: "People are paranoid about me... I'm just the leader of a very ambitious, creative multi-media company that is trying to become global in its roots."

Defending his decision to back Tony Blair after supporting Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, he said: "After Thatcher was knifed by her party it went to pieces, and Labour had finally become an acceptable party." In some of their policies, he added, Labour were "more Thatcherite than the Tories. But they'd kill you if you said that."