Laeding Article: The choice is yours, Mr Blair: Britain, or your friend Rupert Murdoch?

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The Independent Online
The choice before Tony Blair during the next few days is a simple one. Does he intend to govern this country like John Major and umpteen predecessors before him - putting partisan interest first, worrying about face, saying in the hundred and one macho ways available to the tenant of No 10 Downing Street "I'm in charge"? Or does he intend to capture the spirit of those exchanges last week with Bill Clinton in which he claimed to represent a new style of governance - the same kind of spirit he showed in reaching out to take Paddy Ashdown into cabinet deliberations on constitutional reform. How big is Tony Blair?

The issue to hand is his government's response to defeat in the House of Lords on control over predatory pricing in our segment of the newspaper market. Of course The Independent has an interest but - as political and media commentary across the board has shown - the questions of Murdoch's market position and political influence go far wider than our fate. The Lords revolt can only be called a quality insurgency. That war horses of the Castle and Hattersley vintage should burst out of the paddock is one thing. But the opposition to the Government also included such saints of New Labour as Raymond Plant and David Puttnam, let alone experts as Gordon Borrie - a director of Mirror Group Newspapers - Maurice Peston and Joel Barnett. This was an action even the Prime Minister's caustic spokesman could not easily dismiss.

But that is the Lords, and it ill becomes any of us committed to the abolition of that chamber to make too much of any of its decisions. What would embarrass the Government is a quality revolt in the Commons, meaning by that not just the usual suspects but distinguished companions in Tony Blair's own cause of modernising the Labour Party. It is heartening to know that despite the pressures of the whips and thought-police individual members of the Parliamentary Labour Party are prepared to act on their own account. Would their ranks include, say, Charles Clarke, former aide to Neil Kinnock, the victim of Murdoch's 1992 vendetta, or Margaret Hodge, leader of Islington Council when it sought to ban The Sun from its libraries?

On previous form even former opponents of Rupert Murdoch's power, signatories of previous anti-Murdoch motions and authors of speeches in which he and his right-wing newspapers were attacked, will submit. Doubtless in the event of a challenge Mr Blair's ciphers will carry all before them. More iron will enter the backbench soul; more support will drain from the party; Murdoch will see his pound of flesh.

Does the alternative - some attempt to meet the points made by the Lords amendments - have to be a loss of face? For a government of traditional stamp, probably yes. But for a government seeking to redefine terms, catalyse change in the British body politic - does it really have anything to lose? Of course we would like the Government to accept the Lords' amendment as it stands - if only for its symbolic force as a statement of dismissal of Rupert Murdoch's ideology and colonial power in this country.

There are other ways to skin the cat. The object of the exercise is empowering the competition regulators so that a future investigation of News International's pricing policy would bite if evidence were presented showing intent to grab unfair market share. The Government says legislation should concern itself with general policy - even though there already exists competition law together with a set of precedents from investigations by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission which deal explicitly with the market for newspapers. Might then the Bill's general provisions on predatory pricing be tightened so that, without deliberate mention of Murdoch or his newspapers, his anti-competitive tactics policy in the broadsheet newspaper market get outlawed?

That is a practical, even a technical question. The Government could, in good conscience, invite the Trade Secretary (whatever happened to her conscience?) to sit down with Lord Borrie and other experts to flesh out new clauses - perhaps even open its mind to the possibility that the powers required cannot be effected without explicit mention of newspapers.

But that would require magnanimity on the Government's part. It would require Mr Blair to be seen admitting his friend Rupert Murdoch is the problem, in a way he has not done, at least since his visit to Australia. It would require Mr Blair to relinquish his apparent conviction that he can sup with the devil without tarnishing his halo. Above all it would require the Prime Minister to plump, to see that the fortunes of his government let alone his party lie on one side of the political (and cultural) divide and Rupert Murdoch and his interests on the other.

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