Murdoch's tax break upsets Democrats

More than 140 Democratic members of congress signed a letter to President Clinton yesterday asking him to veto a bill containing a sub-clause designed to give Rupert Murdoch a $63m (£39m) tax break.

Outraged Democratic members of the House of Representatives took it in turns on the congressional floor to denounce the special treatment dispensed to Mr Murdoch as an eloquent symbol of what they perceive to be the Republican resolve to take away from the poor to give to the rich.

Rosa de Lauro contrasted the Republicans' welfare reform bill, designed drastically to cut back government aid to the poor, with what she called "this outrageous billionaire boondoggle". Joe Moakley scoffed at Republican efforts to transfer federal funds "from the mouths of babes to the pockets of billionaires".

Most of the provisions of the offending bill received bipartisan support last week, but it was only after the voting was over that Democrats deciphered a line in the fine print and learnt that Mr Murdoch's Fox TV would receive special tax treatment on the sale of WATL, an Atlanta-based television station.

Peter Deutsch of Florida, who drafted yesterday's letter to Mr Clinton, is one of several congressional Democrats who believe that Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, had a hand in sneaking through the legislative item favouring Mr Murdoch.

It is a charge that Mr Gingrich has vigorously denied, but Democratic suspicion is fuelled by the knowledge that the Speaker had a well-publicised meeting with Mr Murdoch earlier this year and that he has signed a book contract with Harper-Collins, a publishing house owned by themedia magnate. Congressman Don Klink linked the special treatment Mr Murdoch was receiving to a $4.5m book advance Mr Gingrich originally accepted - but turned down following a political furore - from HarperCollins.

"I knew something was going to happen," Mr Klink said. "Now we find out a $4.5m book deal has transpired into a $63m special tax credit." David Bonior, the House of Representatives' Democratic whip, also blamed Mr Murdoch's "multi-million dollar boondoggle" on Mr Gingrich, and claimed that the Republicans were going to kill the tax break until they found Mr Murdoch was involved.

Weakening the Democratic case was the fact that it was a Senate Democrat, Carol Moseley-Braun, who introduced the offending line into the bill - not to help out Mr Murdoch but to benefit the black owners of the company purchasing the Atlanta television station. Yet Matt Berzok, a congressional assistant to Mr Deutsch, insisted there was "no way" that Mr Murdoch would be receiving his tax break without the House Speaker's knowledge. "Gingrich has to be involved, has to have known," Mr Berzok said.

"This is not Ronald Reagan, this is the most savvy politician in Congress in 20 years. My boss, who's convinced Gingrich was involved, put it this way: `If it walks like a duck, if it smells like a duck, if it looks like a duck, it's a duck'."