At least the news is on at the right time

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The Independent Online
AS THIS is clearly Rupert Murdoch week, I make no apology for beginning by recalling a visit I made to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. The connection will appear shortly. It was in the mid-1980s. Mr Murdoch had just moved his papers to Wapping. I was giving my standard talk on politicians and the press to an audience of lecturers and graduates.

What, one earnest inquirer asked during questions, were those printers who had been displaced by Mr Murdoch doing now? "Starving, I hope," I replied, quick as a flash. Whereupon two members of the audience (Welsh Nationalists, I was subsequently told) walked out of the gathering into the Celtic mist.

And yet, if they were sincere, so was I. I too spoke from the heart, having suffered from the mandatory chapel (that is, union) meetings held at four o'clock on Saturday afternoons, which lost the entire issue of the Sunday paper then publishing my column. There is no doubt in my mind that, by breaking the power of the unions in old Fleet Street, a move pioneered by Mr Eddy Shah, Mr Murdoch was a public benefactor.

I have no doubt either that on balance Sky Television is a good rather than a bad thing. If Mr Murdoch has priced the BBC out of the sports market - as he has, to the extent that anyone who is seriously interested in or professionally concerned with sport has to have Sky - the failure lies with the corporation, for spending the licence payer's money in other ways, on management consultancy and Byzantine bureaucracy.

Nor has Mr Murdoch simply grabbed sporting occasions from the BBC. He has shown events which were never within the corporation's contemplation, such as overseas cricket Tests and British Isles rugby tours. He has also improved technically the coverage of sport, particularly cricket. And Sky News is a perfectly respectable operation with an excellent political correspondent in Mr Adam Boulton (whom I know only to say "hello" to). It possesses the additional merit of putting itself out on the hour instead of pursuing a fugitive existence as do ITV and BBC news at the weekends.

In short, I refuse to demonise Mr Murdoch, as some of my colleagues in the commentating trade do. He has improved life in several ways. This does not mean that he is a saint, a philanthropist or even a suitable companion for Mr Tony Blair. In the 1980s, Mr Murdoch attained the position he now occupies because Margaret Thatcher and successive Secretaries for Trade and Industry bent the rules about acquisitions and takeovers in his interests. They did this because they wished to retain the support of his newspapers, notably the Sun and the News of the World. Whether, in a free society, such rules should exist at all is a question which has been insufficiently debated. Certainly it was hardly discussed at all in the 1980s, when the Right was both in fashion intellectually and in power politically.

What I am certain of is that the powers exercised by the minister are arbitrary. That minister is now Mrs Margaret Beckett, who, like Mr Michael Heseltine before her, retains the title of President of the Board of Trade in addition to Secretary for Trade and Industry. In many cases, Mrs Beckett has an unfettered discretion about whether to refer various matters to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. She has an equal discretion about whether to accept the commission's decisions.

True, Mr Murdoch gained control of the Times by questionably claiming that the Sunday Times was making a loss, a claim which was accepted by the then Conservative minister. But this whole area is strewn with signposts which turn out to lead nowhere if the minister says so. Indeed, there is hardly any need to bend the rules. The government, acting through the minister, is empowered by statute to do more or less as it pleases.

Throughout the period of Mr Murdoch's expansion, the Director General of Fair Trading was Sir Gordon, now Lord, Borrie. He held the post from 1976 to 1992. He was, I think, the sole fully paid-up Labour supporter to hold a position of pomp and power throughout the reign of Queen Margaret. Lord Borrie now believes that Mr Murdoch's underpricing of the Times is predatory. It is aimed primarily at the Daily Telegraph and hurts secondarily The Independent.

I am not much given to placing my faith in individuals or my trust in princes. The argument from authority holds little appeal for me. Nevertheless Lord Borrie supports Lord McNally's amendment, which is aimed at Mr Murdoch's pricing and was passed by the Lords. The Government now proposes to overturn it in the Commons. In these circumstances I am prepared to believe Lord Borrie, and hope, without a great deal of confidence, that Labour backbenchers will do the same.

The other area where Mr Blair is sucking up to Mr Murdoch is over the Human Rights Bill, which comes before the Commons tomorrow. Here, however, we must be careful, for the already proclaimed anxieties of Mr Murdoch's newspapers are shared by most of the others. The controversy concerns the establishment of a right to privacy. The whole question has become very muddled. I shall now try to sort it out.

The European Convention, which is incorporated into United Kingdom law by the Bill, establishes a right both to privacy and to freedom of expression. Clause 6 of the Bill says that "it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with one or more of the convention rights". The clause goes on to say that a public authority includes "any person certain of whose functions are functions of a public nature". The next clause says that an aggrieved individual can take action against a public authority to enforce the convention.

At first it was thought that the Press Complaints Commission was not a public authority. Then smart legal opinion decided it was. Consternation all round! The commission could be compelled to enforce a law of privacy. Lord Irvine of Lairg went further. He thought the commission could proceed by way of "prior restraint" - in simpler language, censorship. As we know, the courts are getting up to this activity all the time through injunctions taken out under the libel laws. Robert Maxwell was a notable practitioner, aided by several people who should have known better but continue to prosper.

Lord Irvine wants an extension to include privacy policed by the PCC. For someone who has spent part of the last quarter century sharing a glass with journalists in what Lord Beaverbrook used to refer to disapprovingly as El Vino's public house, Lord Irvine is surprisingly unaware of the ways of newspapers. For how does he suppose an allegedly intrusive story is going to come to the commission's attention at 10 at night?

Anyway, Mr Blair is opposed both to prior restraint by the PCC and to giving that body any powers at all under the Bill. Another of Mr Blair's chums, the Solicitor-General Lord Falconer - a much older chum than Mr Murdoch - is hard at work amending the Bill to exclude the commission from it. This does not mean, however, that the judges can be prohibited from developing their own law of privacy. I am surprised they have not done so before. Stopping them would entail further amendement. This would make it absurd. Not even Mr Blair's romance with Mr Murdoch will produce that result.

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