Leading Article: A place in the Sun for Blair?

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HERE'S a remarkable thing. Rupert Murdoch says seven words to a German news magazine - 'I could even imagine supporting Tony Blair' - and serious British newspapers (including this one) devote as many paragraphs to analysing his comment. The explanation is twofold: news is scarce in August; and Mr Murdoch, controller of a global media empire, is a very powerful man. In Britain alone his News International company owns 38 per cent of national newspaper circulation and 50 per cent of the BSkyB satellite television network. He has long been a dominant figure in Australia and the United States, and is increasingly powerful in Asia.

That is the context of Der Spiegel's interview. There is no knowing whether Mr Murdoch's remark about possibly supporting Labour at the next election was mainly mischievous in intent and a shot across the bows of the Conservatives, or represented a considered volte-face. At the last election his five British newspapers were solidly pro-Tory, and the Sun did much to create a climate of vicious hostility towards the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock.

Two days after the unexpected Conservative victory, it proclaimed 'It's the Sun wot won it'. Subsequent research suggested that 36 per cent of Sun readers voted for Labour, compared with 35 per cent of the whole electorate. Yet even if newspapers influence only 1 or 2 per cent of voters, that could be enough to tip an election.

If Mr Murdoch himself and a few of his titles - Today is already sympathetic - did indeed support Mr Blair next time around, it would be par for the course. As shown on our Media page today, he has always been an opportunist in political matters: if it helped his business interests to support Labour in Australia, or to drop his long campaign against Senator Edward Kennedy in the US, he did so. In 1985 he even became a US citizen so he could acquire a small TV station. When the Chinese objected to the inclusion of the BBC's news service on his Star TV's north Asian service, he dropped it. He supported Margaret Thatcher in the Eighties mainly because he saw the benefits, notably from trade union legislation, without which he could not have broken the print unions at Wapping.

For Mr Blair, the mere possibility of a public embrace from such a man must arouse seriously mixed emotions. Among many of his colleagues, the role played by the Murdoch tabloids in the last election is still bitterly resented. Only a few weeks ago, when the price of the Times was cut to 20p, the shadow industry spokesman, Robin Cook, supported a referral to the Office of Fair Trading for predatory pricing.

It is true that Labour's election commitment to 'establish an urgent inquiry by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission into the concentration of media ownership', appears to have been dumped: Mo Mowlam, shadow National Heritage spokesperson, said recently: 'I am not ducking the Murdoch problem, but I'm not saying I'm going to cut him down to size for the simple reason that in two years' time his size may not be a problem.' However, if Mr Murdoch's flirtation becomes more serious, Mr Blair will face a decision: to keep a new friend, or risk making a powerful enemy.