In a league of someone else's

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The Independent Online
Concluding today: our rugby league saga, Up From Down Under!

The story so far: Rupert Murdoch has bought the entire British rugby league set-up to turn the game into a television-only spectacle. Mike Haslet, captain of newly formed team Battlecliff, privately hates the takeover but publicly supports Murdoch's regime. After leading his team to victory in the League Cup Final, he faces some tough questioning at the post-match press conference.

"Mike, Mike!" shouted a man from the broadsheets. "What was it like, playing at Wembley today?"

"Great," said Mike Haslet. "It's always been my dream to play at Wembley."

"I didn't mean that," shouted the man. "I meant, what's it like playing at Wembley without a single spectator? Now that Murdoch has turned rugby league into a TV spectacle with no crowd to get in the way, what's it like playing without crowd reaction? Without the cheering and booing?"

"I'll tell you," said Mike. "It means it's the first time in the history of the game that you can hear your own players speaking. Nobody had any idea until now what the captain was trying to tell them. Now they can. No wonder we're playing better."

There was laughter at this.

"Put it another way," said a man from a posh Sunday. "What's it like playing for Rupert Murdoch, then?"

Mike kept the smile going.

"There has been no editorial control of the game at all," said Mike. "On no occasion has Mr Murdoch rung me up during a game and suggested I kick for touch rather than go for the line."

There was more laughter at this. Mike was obviously better at handling questions than he had realised.

"What do you feel about the rugby league matches all being beamed directly to Malaysia?" asked someone else.

What he meant was, ``and being gambled on by half of Asia''. But Mike preferred not to take it that way.

"Sport is becoming increasingly international," he said. "We don't think it's odd to sit in England and watch the Super Bowl from America, or to have the Tour de France every day on Channel 4. So what's odd about beaming league rugby to Malaysia?"

"Have you ever spoken to Rupert Murdoch?" asked someone else.

"Not wittingly," said Mike, "but all Australians sound alike on the phone to me."

It was agreed that Mike had fielded the press conference amazingly well, which is probably why he did get a phone call from Rupert Murdoch a few days later, congratulating him, and offering him the job of his roving ambassador in charge of rugby league public relations.

"Think I should take it?" he asked his club chairman, Bill Gradeley.

"I don't think you ought to, but I think you will," said Bill.

"How do you reckon that?"

"You said you would never pull on a shirt to play rugby league for Murdoch, and you did. You have no intention of taking this job, but you will. It's the old Beaverbrook technique."

"The old what?"

"Beaverbrook used to lure all them left-wingers and free-thinkers into his employ. Michael Foot. AJP Taylor. James Cameron ... They all swore independence, but they all took the Beaverbrook shilling. It was almost like breaking in a wild horse. Done for the challenge, like. A bit like what Thatcher did to Bernard Ingham and Murdoch did to Harry Evans and Tiny Rowland did to what's-his-name. Now Murdoch is doing it to you. You won't be the first or last. Oh, you'll lay down certain guidelines and he will give certain undertakings and there will be a board of bishops and peers set up to make sure he keeps his word, and then Murdoch will do precisely what he wants. He always has. That's his power and fascination."

"This is all a bit heavy, Mr Gradeley," said Mike Haslet. "I'm just a simple rugby player, not an opinion-former or mover and shaker."

"All right," said Mr Gradeley. "But remember one thing; whom the gods love, die young. Whom Rupert Murdoch loves, he promotes into harm's way. When he wanted Kelvin MacKenzie out of the way at the Sun, he gave him a TV job - and then the chop. When he wanted Andrew Neil out of the way, he gave him a chat show - then the chop."

"And now he's offering me promotion," said Mike Haslet slowly ...

Following the receipt of an injunction from News International, this saga is now sub judice and no more can be published. Sorry about that.