Peer condemns 'lobbyist' Prime Minister

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The Independent Online
LORD McNALLY, the Liberal Democrat peer, provided the best take yesterday on the Prime Minister's actions on behalf of Rupert Murdoch's business plans in Italy: "Here we are straining every sinew to make sure lobbyists in Parliament are controlled. Then we find out that the Prime Minister is a lobbyist."

But he is not surprised. It was he who sponsored the amendment to the competition Bill passing through Parliament that would end the predatory pricing tactics of Mr Murdoch's Times newspaper.

The Government, because of its friendly relations with Mr Murdoch, opposed the amendment but was defeated by a cross-party alliance of peers by 121 votes to 93. Nevertheless, when the Bill returns to the Commons in 10 days time, the Government will rip the amendment from it. "There is to be no compromise measure," said Lord McNally. "The only question is the lengths they go to, whipping for Murdoch, to quell any Labour revolt."

The protection of the Times' pricing policy is just one of a number of issues where the Blair government has come to the aid of the News Corp empire.

In the aftermath of the HarperCollins disposal of the book by Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, and Times correspondent Jonathan Mirsky's assertion that that newspaper is soft on China, the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, asked the

Government to look at the conditions that permitted Mr Murdoch to take over the Times in 1981. The then trade secretary, John Biffen, laid down eight conditions for a non-referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and Mr Ashdown wrote to Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, to ask her to look at how these conditions were being breached over China.

Ms Beckett wrote to Mr Ashdown washing her hands of the paper's editorial independence: "Disputes between management and the editor on breaches on independence ... are a matter for the editor of the Times and the [Times'] independent national directors and not for the Government" - which is exactly the opposite of what parliament was told in 1981.

In the same way, the Government has dismissed out of hand the requests of Labour backbenchers and countless others for new ownership legislation that would reduce the scale of Mr Murdoch's holdings in the United Kingdom.

The Blair government has also come to the aid of Mr Murdoch in less direct ways. As the biggest newspaper proprietor, he had most to gain by Mr Blair's immediate rejection of privacy legislation in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

For the same reason, the imminent government decision on how to protect the press, and the Press Complaints Commission, from the privacy provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights cannot be seen as driven purely by a desire to protect press freedom. Even inadvertently the Government can be seen to favour Mr Murdoch. Last week's decision by an independent working party looking at the "jewels in the crown" sports (those protected for terrestrial television) to loosen the protection for English home cricket test matches, can be seen to hand BSkyB yet another sport.

All of which makes Tony Blair rather more valuable than the average Westminster lobbyist. The question is whether Mr Murdoch will pay his price of support at the next election and over a move to monetary union.