Murdoch's courtship puts Blair on trial

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The Independent Online
ROBERT MILLIKEN

Sydney

When Tony Blair goes to Queensland this weekend to address a gathering of Rupert Murdoch and his international editors and executives, the Labour Party leader will be treading a well-worn path of rising political figures who have been unable to resist the media magnate's flattery.

Mr Blair will join Paul Keating, the Australian Labor leader and Prime Minister, as guests of Mr Murdoch at News Corporation's three-yearly management conference, which draws together the most influential people in the Murdoch empire.

The occasion will be brimming with ironic parallels. Mr Blair and Mr Keating lead parties which have been severely burnt by their treatment from the Murdoch press, then apparently "rehabilitated" by Mr Murdoch. Initially, all the signs were that Mr Keating would stay away from the Murdoch conference, but his office has announced that he, too, will attend and speak. Mr Keating and Mr Blair will meet first in Cairns, in tropical north Queensland, on Sunday. Then they will fly to the conference on Hayman Island, an exclusive resort in the Whitsunday Passage group run by Ansett Airlines, which is half-owned by News Corporation. Mr Blair will deliver the keynote address on "Britain in the World" on Monday.

For the magnate and his political guests, expediency will be the name of the game. Just as Mr Murdoch appears to have become exasperated by John Major and the Conservatives, he decided long ago that Australia's conservative Liberal Party, which his newspapers once supported, had run out of steam and that his Antipodean business interests would best be served by the new-look, ideologically pragmatic Labor Party. Most of his papers have supported Labor in three of the four elections that it has won since 1983. With all opinion polls wrongly predicting a Labor defeat at the last election two years ago, they again turned anti-Labor.

Mr Keating will tell Mr Blair why Mr Murdoch appears to have become the Labor government's favoured media tycoon, or, to those MPs who still feel distinctly uncomfortable about the relationship, the least evil one. Mr Keating and Mr Murdoch have met several times, but their seminal discussion was at Mr Murdoch's Canberra residence last October. Out of that came a decision by Twentieth Century Fox, an arm of News Corporation, to establish a film production studio in the heart of Sydney. Mr Keating made this decision a centrepiece of his statement a few days later on his government's cultural policy.

The film studio has been followed by other massive Murdoch investments in Australia, such as buying up the country's rugby league game to form a superleague and forming an alliance with Telstra, the state-owned telecommunications company, to build a pay-television network. Canberra has looked benignly on all these investments. Last March, Mr Murdoch said on Australian television: "You have got to say about Paul Keating that he is one of the very few strong leaders in the world today ... he is quite a remarkable figure."

For his part, Mr Keating admires the bold risk-taker in Mr Murdoch and the global vision which he believes other Australian business figures lack. Mr Keating also knows the value of having the support of a tycoon who controls almost 70 per cent of Australia's metropolitan newspapers, one of the world's highest concentrations of press ownership. Kerry Packer, Mr Murdoch's biggest media industry rival in Australia, is firmly out of Canberra's favour. The Murdoch-Labor relationship was not always so warm. The party's left has never forgiven the Murdoch press for what it believes was its destruction of the Labor administration of Gough Whitlam in 1975.

Twenty years later, Mr Murdoch has proved the durability of his mercurial approach towards those who hold the reins of power. As Mr Blair offers his opinions on Monday, however, he would be wise to remember that it is he who is on trial, not the Murdoch empire.

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