A Dubious Alliance: Why Blair's romance with Murdoch will end in tears

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As an act of modern diplomacy it was one of the weirdest and most eloquent little events in years: Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell spent a serious amount of time in Tokyo discussing their need for the Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to apologise to Rupert Murdoch's Sun newspaper for his country's behaviour in the Second World War. Hashimoto, helped by Campbell, duly obliges and one of those all-time surrealistic headlines results: "Japan says sorry to the Sun". ( On a par with Britain apologising to the bulldog, or America saying sorry to the Bald Eagle.)

Now, you could argue that this deal is logical and benign. Most of the country stopped agonising about the Japanese years ago. But of the minority of still-angry and in some cases xenophobic protesters, many are Sun readers; up to now their sensitivities have been regularly prodded with a sharp stick by that organ's editor. A fresh Japanese apology to Britain is deemed unnecessary; but Sun readers, still bristling, are another matter. Well, fine. If the article helps smooth the way for the Japanese emperor's state visit in May, so much the better.

But Number 10 under Blair is famously obsessed with the Sun, just as it was when inhabited by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. The current Prime Minister would argue, I suppose, that unlike his predecessors, he has a chance of taming the red-faced ranter of British journalism, soothing and enticing it into a gentler and a more liberal world-view. Maybe, though its editor must know that in his market, blandness doesn't sell and populist, right-wing opinions do.

The Sun is only the beginning of this, however. Mr Blair's courtship of Murdoch began, I believe, as a damage-limitation exercise, meant to do no more than help New Labour get a fair playing-field in the 1997 election. But the flirtation blossomed into a genuine romance, and is now energetically consummated on a regular basis.

This may be sad, but it isn't surprising. The politics of Blair's Murdochism are crystal clear, and learnt from the Tories as well as from other leaders in Australia and the US: at all costs, get on side with the dominant media player and stay there. Murdoch is particularly useful to a government that wants to deal with him because (unlike at The Independent and other papers) he tells editors what to print. Deal with him and the deal affects all his journalists. It's very clean and efficient. From the point of view of the politician, it makes life simpler. You get his support. He gets your help with regulatory or other issues that touch his business.

Thus, this newspaper, like others, has been struggling to persuade Parliament to toughen the law on predatory pricing, the anti-competitive technique whereby Murdoch dumps the Times at below what it costs to produce it in order to drive commercial competitors out of business.

Everyone acknowledges it is happening, and no one professes to like it. Before the election, Labour saw a case for acting. Now, surprise, surprise, it doesn't. Many fine words have been uttered in Parliament on the subject. In the end, though, nothing will actually happen. Blair's own ministers say baldly and unequivocally that he will not cross Murdoch at any price. Some have the grace to look embarrassed when they tell us that whatever Murdoch wants, he'll get.

On the other hand, New Labour has shunned most of its natural supporters in the liberal press, and alienated most leading left or liberal journalists. All right, part of that is because such people are natural oppositionists, and have an almost biological need to disagree with Downing Street at all times. But the main reason is that the rest of the press isn't needed: New Labour has lines of communication to the public through broadcasting and the sleek yes-men on Murdoch papers.

Nor is it obvious that this deal will affect policy-making in other areas in the short term. Blair is forging ahead with welfare changes, constitutional reforms and educational changes just as he said he would. Across the board, you cannot say that this is a cynical or gutless Government, even if its chosen media delivery-system is an unattractive one.

There are, however, dangers here which even a Prime Minister as powerful as Tony Blair should ponder. First, clearly, there is the danger that Murdoch grows so powerful that his demands cannot be resisted in policy areas that stretch beyond his immediate business requirements. The whole question of the single currency is an obvious example. If the newspaper market is shrunk by predatory pricing, and then ITV loses ground badly to BSkyB when it goes head to head, Murdoch's personal power, already large, will be awesome.

Does Mr Blair really suppose he will be able to break from this embrace without affecting his judgement or reputation? Not if he has followed Murdoch's career, as he must have. The Australian Labor Party, which provided an early model for New Labour, became enmeshed in a ''mates' economy'' which was eventually seen as cynical and corrupting. In the US, the White House itself intervened to protect the tycoon's Fox TV from interference by the Federal Communications Commission to the humiliated fury of its employees, and Newt Gingrich's book deal with Murdoch did the Republicans huge harm with a public that knows a greasy palm when it sees one.

In Britain, an intense and stickily private concentration of political and media power at the heart of the state is exactly the opposite of everything that New Labour professes to believe in as a reforming party. Remember, this whole issue is one that simply cannot be written about in the Times or openly discussed by the burgeoning Murdoch empire. It matters, yet it is forbidden territory except in newspapers like this one.

The Conservatives created huge public cynicism about politics because of the perception of private deals and special arrangements for chums and backers. Of all the strong political cards in his hand, including the size of his majority and the talents of some of his leading people, Blair has none that matters more than his reputation for openness and fairness. He has big ambitions for the country. But if it is really true that he dare not protest about an unfair misuse of commercial muscle, then Britain has become a littler country than it was before.

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