Leading article: Be wary, Mr Blair, of how you court your friends

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The Independent Online

To understand, however, is not to condone. On the substance of the issue, the Prime Minister is simply wrong. The BBC's coverage of the inundation of New Orleans was by implication critical of America in that it reflected surprise at the extent of the poverty that was revealed. As did coverage in the US media. The BBC often implied criticism of the Bush administration. As did coverage in the US media. The simple reason for this was that the facts on the ground were damning of the President. Some BBC reporters may have given the impression that they were not registered Republicans - Matt Frei's name springs to mind. But they conveyed their shock and anger at the shocking and indefensible. Engagement is not necessarily the same as political bias.

Does it matter that Mr Blair is mistaken? Yes, but we should be clear why. There is nothing wrong with the Prime Minister taking issue with the BBC. Indeed, in a democracy it is healthy that there should be a certain level of tension between the Government and an independent public service broadcaster. But there are lines that should not be crossed, and we are obliged to give Mr Blair the benefit of the doubt that he has stayed on the right side of them. As far as we know, neither the renewal of the BBC's licence fee nor the Government's power to appoint the chairman has been used to put political pressure on the corporation. Yet, when we see what pressure the BBC is capable of applying to itself, the Government has hardly needed to. What matters is the BBC's self-belief - sorely weakened by the Gilligan-Kelly affair - as much as Mr Blair's attitude.

Nor is there anything necessarily wrong with the Prime Minister being on friendly terms with a major media proprietor. Any serious politician needs the media in order to communicate with a mass electorate. But, again, there are lines that should not be crossed, and here Mr Blair has not been so scrupulous. When he was caught out in 1998 lobbying Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister, on behalf of Mr Murdoch, Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's spokesman, stretched the English language beyond what it could bear in an attempt to deny the story. With the odour of payback so strong, Mr Blair ought to be more careful to ensure that his relationship with Mr Murdoch is always seen as purer than pure.

So Mr Blair's comments on the BBC's coverage of Katrina were not just wrong. They add to the legitimate questions about one of the less savoury relationships that has underpinned his premiership - in particular, whether Mr Murdoch's cross-media interests in Britain have been regulated as rigorously as they should have been.

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