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Anzacs declare war on the Dirty Digger

As Australians mark Anzac Day, Rupert Murdoch is under fire for his commercial exploitation of one of the most sacred days in the Australian calendar, when the country commemorates its war dead.

Veterans and their families have accused Mr Murdoch of "corporate vandalism" over his use of military symbols to promote an Anzac Test between Australian and New Zealand rugby league teams in Sydney today. The game will be staged by Superleague, the rugby league enterprise that Mr Murdoch has created for his Australian pay-television venture.

Anzac Day is a public holiday in which Australians and New Zealanders mark the anniversary of the disastrous Gallipoli landings of the First World War on 25 April 1915, and remember their dead in other wars. As the numbers of returned soldiers, or "Diggers", have dwindled over the years, Anzac Day marches and ceremonies have swelled as their descendants have stepped into their shoes.

For 81 years, since the first Anzac Day in 1916, solemnity and commercial- free have been the watchwords. Enter Mr Murdoch, sometimes known as the "Dirty Digger" over his tabloid newspapers. Superleague recently struck a deal with the New South Wales branch of the Returned Services League (RSL), the veterans' organisation. In return for using the word "Anzac" in connection with the Australia-New Zealand match today, using the Army's rising-sun symbol on players' uniforms and offering a trophy in the shape of the Australian army slouch hat, Superleague would donate A$20,000 (pounds 10,000) towards a walkway that the RSL is building to commemorate soldiers who died in New Guinea in the Second World War.

When the deal was revealed, John Ribot, chief executive of Superleague, deflected the resulting flak by denying that the Murdoch organisation had bought the Anzac legend for commercial gain. "We're enhancing it," he said. "We're creating a young audience."

But many old soldiers are outraged. Alf Garland, a retired brigadier and former RSL president, attacked the Test's television promotion, which compares football teams to soldiers in battle. "I don't think these people should be using Anzac as a commercial proposition," he said. "I'll be going to the dawn service and remembering the people I served with who never came back. That's what it should be."

While the Anzacs were attacking him, Mr Murdoch was being challenged on a second front by opponents of his plan to turn another Australian public icon, the Sydney Showgrounds, into a studio and film theme park for Twentieth Century Fox, the Hollywood studio he owns. Opponents of the deal yesterday took it to court in Sydney. They are led by Sinclair Hill, a prominent, wealthy Australian farmer and a friend of the Prince of Wales, whom he once taught polo. Mr Hill last week paid almost A$40,000 for a full-page advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald, a non-Murdoch paper, in the form of an open letter to the magnate.

"The 71 acres of the showgrounds are a national treasure," Mr Hill wrote. "Every Australian hates your Fox destruction of our heritage and history. Destruction of our soul."

Mr Hill then appealed to Mr Murdoch to build his studio elsewhere: "There is no greater Australian than you, Rupert, and I again ask you to make one of the truly great decisions of your life, a Murdoch contribution to Australia. PULL THE PIN."

Mr Hill's open letter followed a direct plea to Mr Murdoch in a15-minute telephone conversation between the two men several weeks earlier.

As he prepared to go to the New South Wales Court of Appeal yesterday, Mr Hill said: "I was born with a silver spoon, and part of my responsibility is to help the whole cultural betterment of the country. This showground land is part of the entanglement of people and history. I want Murdoch to leave it behind as a public park that we could build into the spirit of an Australian republic, which he supports.

"I'm a republican too. I hope Prince Charles comes out here and helps us become a republic. He's a big man, a fine human being. I will suggest to Prince Charles that he come here and help us become a republic."

The showgrounds, public land since 1811, were offered to Mr Murdoch by Australia's former Labor government in a deal that it hoped would secure support from the Murdoch press at last year's general election. After Mr Murdoch secured the right to build the studio, his papers then failed to support Labor and its leader, Paul Keating, who lost in a landslide.

And what was Mr Murdoch's response to Mr Hill's phone call? "He said 'I will think about it'," said Mr Hill.