What Tony said to Rupert - and why it speaks volumes

The PM's extraordinary attack on the BBC has reopened old wounds and raised questions about his special relationships. By Andy McSmith
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Indy Politics

Not with the publicly funded BBC, an old established corporation that has served Great Britain through peace and war - obviously.

There are, rather, two transatlantic special relationships that have dominated Tony Blair's 11-year leadership of the Labour Party. One is with the US government; the other is with the naturalised US citizen Rupert Murdoch.

In one comment - that the BBC reports illustrated it is "full of hatred of America" - the Prime Minister managed simultaneously to tell Murdoch something that he wanted to hear, send out a message of succour to his friend George Bush, and whack the BBC. Again.

The remark was uttered less than a week after the PR consultant Tim Allan leaked to The Times a transcript of indiscreet political remarks made by the BBC journalist John Humphrys.

The Blair-supporting Times is, of course, owned by Murdoch. Allan used to work for BskyB, controlled by Murdoch, having gone into that job directly from Downing Street, where he was deputy to Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press adviser. The many threads connecting Murdoch and New Labour go back to the day Blair ascended to the party leadership in 1994. Before this, the picture was very different.

Twenty years ago, Murdoch's journalists were banned from Labour Party press conferences, in solidarity with the printers and other employees sacked when Murdoch moved his operation to the its current headquarters in Wapping.

It was party policy that a Labour government would break up the Murdoch operation by forcing him to sell at least one of his national daily papers. The only contact between the Labour leader Neil Kinnock and Murdoch's largest-selling daily, The Sun, was through libel writs.

The paper retaliated by setting out to destroy Kinnock, ending with its famous boast, after the 1992 election, that "It was The Sun wot won it". That all changed one day in 1994, when a car glided into Wapping taking Blair's advisers, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, to a secret meeting with the editor of The Sun.

The following July, Blair and senior aides flew across the world and back to address an annual conference that Murdoch and his senior executives were holding at the Australian resort of Hayman Island.

He had also struck up a friendship with the columnist Irwin Stelzer. Stelzer is so close to Murdoch that - as the political editor of The Spectator, Peter Oborne, memorably put it - he "stands in the same kind of relationship to Murdoch as Suslov did to Stalin".

Soon after one of Stelzer's many visits to Downing Street last year, Blair made the unexpected announcement that Britain would not sign up to the proposed EU constitution until the people had voted for it in a referendum. Stelzer has denied that he was sent by Murdoch to give Blair his marching orders.

Another social tie that linked Murdoch to the future Prime Minister was the west London dinner circuit, in which Mandelson sat down to eat with Elisabeth Murdoch, the media mogul's daughter.

In 1997, The Sun carried a piece by Blair headlined "I'm a British Patriot", drafted by Campbell, promising that Labour would not allow Britain to be absorbed into a European superstate.

The piece played excellently to Murdoch's well-known opposition to the EU, and the very next day, Labour landed the big prize: The Sun, with its 3.3 million-a-day circulation, threw its support behind Labour.

The Sun has been amply rewarded ever since. Its political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, was able to report accurately the date of the 2001 general election before the information had been imparted to the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott.

When The Sun's rival, the Daily Mirror discovered that Cherie Blair was pregnant, she immediately shared the information with the editor of The Sun, Rebekah Wade.

More seriously, in March 1998, when Murdoch made a £4bn offer to buy an Italian television station from Silvio Berlusconi, a Turin newspaper reported that Blair had contacted the Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, to ask if the government in Rome would block the deal.

To say the least, it was odd that the British Prime Minister should concern himself with an Australian-American billionaire's interest in an Italian television station. When Alastair Campbell was asked about it, he described the report as "crap". That was because Blair was reported to have telephoned Prodi, when, in fact, it was Prodi's office that placed the call. The rest was true.

As an astonished News International executive told the Financial Times: "Rupert's access to the Prime Minister is pretty amazing. We were bowled over."

That "amazing" access was in evidence again this month, as the Prime Minister and the media mogul chatted amiably on a trade visit to Delhi. Keeping away from the cameras, they discussed the tragedy in Louisiana, and to judge from Murdoch's account of the conversation, it was not the fate of the victims that worried Tony Blair.

It was the thought that people watching BBC news at home might think that the United States is a divided society and that its government was slow in coming to the aid of those too poor to escape the hurricane.

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL

Tony Blair's press adviser, 1994-2003. One of the most powerful and outspoken political advisers any prime minister has had, never slow to attack Blair's enemies in the media.

Since stepping down, has signed a contract with his favourite newspaper, The Times - owned by Rupert Murdoch - to write a regular sports column and articles on politics.

TIM ALLAN

A political adviser in the early 1990s, when Tony Blair was shadow Home Secretary, he returned as a press officer in 1994. Blair tried to bring him back into Downing Street this year.

From Downing Street he went to BskyB - owner, Rupert Murdoch - as head of communications, where his tasks included writing speeches for Elisabeth Murdoch.

IRWIN STELZER

He knew Tony Blair and Gordon Brown before they were in government, and gives advice freely. He allegedly persuaded Tony Blair not to sign the EU constitution without a referendum.

A regular columnist for The Sunday Times, a confidante and personal emissary for Rupert Murdoch. The Spectator said he played " Suslov to Murdoch's Stalin".

ELISABETH MURDOCH

She enjoyed dinners with Peter Mandelson and arranged for BskyB to sponsor the Millennium Dome to the tune of £12m, when Mandelson was the minister in charge of it.

Her father made her managing director of BskyB when she was 30, but she left in 2001 to run her own production company. Murdoch says his daughter is welcome back.

Labour vs the BBC: three years of vicious spats

Publish or be damned

August 2002: The BBC was challenged to publish the findings of internal investigations into claims that Downing Street had hacked into the corporation's computers to monitor its news coverage 1997. Tony Blair's office dismissed as "complete drivel" the allegations by John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor. A number of BBC journalists were said to have passed on concerns about apparent breaches of computer security to senior editors, who were said to have investigated.

Relations worsen

May 2003: In a 6.07am broadcast on Radio 4's Today programme, reporter Andrew Gilligan, right, appeared to suggest that the Government had known that there was no basis to the claim that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, but went ahead with it anyway. Even then, there was no furore until Mr Gilligan suggested in a newspaper article - still quoting his anonymous source - that the person responsible for inserting the 45-minute claim was Alastair Campbell.

June 2003: Mr Campbell demanded an apology, as the Government ordered an inquiry into the source of the leaks. Mr Gilligan and Mr Campbell appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Mr Campbell and the Government demanded an apology from the BBC. The BBC refused.

July 2003: The Iraqi weapons expert David Kelly told the committee he didn't believe he was the source for Mr Gilligan after he was named in the media. Three days later Dr Kelly took his own life. Lord Hutton was asked to investigate.

November 2003: TheToday programme was at the centre of a fresh row after it emerged that Margaret Hodge, the children's minister, had written to Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman to complain about one of its investigations. Ms Hodge claimed that a BBC reporter, Angus Stickler, was conducting a " concerted campaign" to link her with cases of child abuse in homes run by Islington council, of which she was leader from 1982 to 1992. She said that this amounted to "deplorable" sensationalism, and accused Mr Stickler of basing a report on evidence from an "extremely disturbed individual".

January 2004: The Hutton report cleared Tony Blair and Mr Campbell and blamed the BBC for just about everything. Mr Davies, the director general Greg Dyke and Mr Gilligan all resigned.

February 2004: A leaked copy of a BBC legal report said that Lord Hutton's report was "wrong in law".

August 2004: Mr Gilligan claimed the BBC is "going soft" on the Government, fearing a backlash from No 10. Speaking in Edinburgh. he said that Today "does seem to have lost at least half of its reporters and there seems to be a trend of moving story-breaking journalism off daily news programmes and into less-watched programmes in current affairs".

No respite for the Beeb

January 2005: A year after leaving the BBC, Mr Dyke, writing in The Independent, said: "Knowing what we now know, the saga has an unreal quality because, today, there is no doubt that the BBC story, which led to our departures, was fundamentally right when it said that Downing Street had sexed up the case for going to war in Iraq."

February 2005: Mr Campbell was branded an "out-of-control nutter" after sending an obscene email to Newsnight journalist Andrew McFadyen, which ended "Now f*** off and cover something important you t***s".

September 2005: Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys was rebuked by the BBC for his unguarded remarks at a PR event, including: "All you've got to do is say 'John Prescott' and people laugh".

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