Murdoch's courtship of Blair finally pays off

IN JULY 1995, Tony Blair flew halfway round the world to cement his relationship with Rupert Murdoch at a News Corporation conference. Introducing him, the media tycoon joked: "If the British press is to be believed, today is all part of a Blair-Murdoch flirtation. If that flirtation is ever consummated, Tony, I suspect we will end up making love like two porcupines - very carefully."

For Mr Blair, the relationship bore fruit when he was elected with the key support of the Sun. But Mr Murdoch had to wait until yesterday for full satisfaction when No 10 launched a passionate attack on his critics after the Lords passed an anti-Murdoch amendment to the Competition Bill.

A year earlier, few Labour MPs would have believed such a scene was possible. In fact, in July 1994 the shadow financial secretary to the treasury, Alistair Darling, sponsored a Commons motion condemning a newspaper price- cutting campaign by Mr Murdoch. "The newspaper industry is not only an important business but also a vital organ of the democratic process ... predatory pricing, with the intention of forcing rivals out of the market, will reduce choice and undermine competition," it said, before calling on the Conservative government to prevent the practice. No fewer than 81 Labour MPs signed the motion. Among them was Nigel Griffiths, who as competition minister could now be expected to take the Competition Bill through the Commons and to lead the government defence of Mr Murdoch's price cuts. A week earlier, a separate motion signed by 59 MPs said the price-cutting battle would lead to "fewer titles, fewer jobs, less choice for readers and a further dangerous concentration of ownership". One signatory was Peter Mandelson, now minister without portfolio and a friend of Elisabeth Murdoch, the tycoon's daughter.

Altogether 24 ministers and 55 MPs still in the Commons backed one or both of the critical motions. Labour boycotted News International titles for a year after the move to Wapping in 1986 that led to the dismissal of 5,000 print workers.

In 1992 Murdoch's flagship Sun claimed it had scuppered Labour's election chances by suggesting that if Neil Kinnock won, the last person to leave Britain should turn out the lights. The day after the election it boasted "It was the Sun wot won it!".

Even before he became leader, Mr Blair met Mr Murdoch at a dining club in Belgravia. It was reported that the tycoon was impressed by the politician's "puppy-dog, youthful, company-lawyer image".

Once Mr Blair was elected, things moved quickly. Mr Murdoch gave an interview to Der Spiegel magazine in which he mused: "Last year we helped the Labour government in Canberra. I could even imagine supporting Tony Blair." In September 1994, the two men and their wives were dining in the private room of a London restaurant with Gus Fischer, chief executive of News International. Although there was no talk of how Mr Blair could help Mr Murdoch, there were separate meetings with Mr Fischer at which "issues of mutual interest" were discussed.

By March 1995, there were reports that Labour plans for cross-media ownership would not force Mr Murdoch to sell any of his empire. And a year into his leadership, Mr Blair was on Hayman Island, Australia, listening to praise from Mr Murdoch at the News Corporation conference for his "courage" in attending.

On the first day of the 1997 election campaign, there was proof that the courtship had not been in vain. "The Sun Backs Blair," the headline on Mr Murdoch's leading tabloid read. The manoeuvring had paid off.

Leading article, page 20

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