...and how Murdoch may make them regret it

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Indy Politics
Before Tony Blair basks too much in his endorsement by Rupert Murdoch, he would do well to reflect soberly on how rapidly the Murdoch passion for Labour could turn to dust.

One blatant example of Mr Murdoch's political fickleness happened in his native Australia following the election of a Labor government in 1972, in circumstances chillingly similar to those in 1997 Britain.

In late 1972, Australians elected a federal Labor government after 23 years of conservative rule. In the run-up to the 1972 campaign, Mr Murdoch courted Gough Whitlam, then Labor leader, in a mirror-image reflection of the way that he has courted Tony Blair - and for many of the same reasons. He sensed a national mood tired with the old regime and hankering for change. And, with his ever-expanding business interests uppermost in mind, Murdoch did not want to be left backing the wrong horse.

When Mr Murdoch invited Mr Blair as a keynote speaker to a 1995 management conference on Hayman Island, an Australian resort, there was a more modest precedent 23 years earlier. In 1972, Mr Whitlam was Mr Murdoch's dinner guest at a Sydney restaurant appropriately called the Hungry Horse. The magnate looked the Labor leader over and decided that he had the right stuff to take the country into a new political era. The Murdoch papers swung behind Labor's "It's Time" campaign slogan.

Three years later, when Labor made an economic hash of things, the same papers turned against Mr Whitlam with a ferocity that helped to destroy the Labor government. During the 1975 election, Mr Murdoch himself became involved in slanting news stories against the government in what he has virtually admitted since was a campaign to drive Labor from power. It succeeded resoundingly. Journalists who demurred were sidelined or replaced.

Rupert Murdoch took years to get over his disenchantment with Australian Labor, and his papers behaved accordingly. But, as long as governments maintain a role in the regulation of media businesses, he has always been prepared to sacrifice his political principles in order to keep open channels to the corridors of power.

When a new-look, ideologically pragmatic Labor Party came to power in 1983 under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and looked set to stay, Mr Murdoch decided to do business with them. Most of his newspapers supported Labor in three of the four elections it won between 1983 and 1990. They again turned anti-Labor at the 1993 election when all opinion polls wrongly predicted a Labor defeat. Sensing an overwhelming public mood for change ahead of the 1996 election, the Murdoch papers ended their love affair with Paul Keating and supported the conservative coalition led by John Howard, which won in a landslide.

But Mr Murdoch's massaging of Labor during its golden Hawke-Keating era paid off handsomely for his business interests. During those years, there were massive Murdoch investments in Australia, such as buying up the country's rugby league game to form a superleague and forming a pay- television network in alliance with the state-owned telecom. The government, unwilling to antagonise the man who controls two-thirds of Australia's main newspapers, did not question these expansions.

When he was Prime Minister, Paul Keating pledged to Mr Murdoch a site for 20th Century-Fox, an arm of News Corporation, to build a film studio in the heart of Sydney. The site on the Sydney Showgrounds has been public land for 160 years. When the deal was revealed, with its implications that Labor had become too much the plaything of the "big end of town", it helped spark a desertion of the party in its traditional heartland at last year's election. Having secured the deal, Mr Murdoch was happy for his newspapers to turn against Labor in anticipation of a change in power in Canberra.

So Tony Blair should remember. Just as Mr Murdoch was prepared to trade in Australian citizenship for American citizenship in order to acquire an American television network in the 1980s, so he is always ready to jettison politicians to further his business ambitions.

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