Leading Article: Favours. Not fairness

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The Independent Online
IN the matter of Tony Blair lobbying the Italian prime minister on behalf of Rupert Murdoch, let us be clear about one thing first. This newspaper holds a broadly favourable view of the Labour Government and its leader. We know about the "big picture" and on the whole we approve of it.

So when we criticise Mr Blair for cosying up to vested interests, we are not animated by prejudice or allowing ourselves to be distracted by tittle tattle. Mr Blair should not have mentioned Mr Murdoch when he spoke to Romano Prodi on the telephone on Wednesday last week, except to warn him of the slippery qualities of the Australo-American magnate's undertakings in respect of editorial independence and competition.

After he did so, Mr Blair's office should not have tried to mislead journalists who asked legitimate questions about the call. Claiming that Mr Blair could not have "lobbied" Mr Prodi because the call came from Italy is insulting misinformation. And refusing to discuss whether Mr Blair had spoken by phone to Mr Murdoch on the grounds that this would have been a "private conversation" is a disgrace to open government. It only puts off having to answer the inevitable parliamentary questions which will - rightly - be tabled.

Of course, The Independent has an interest to declare. We do not approve of Mr Murdoch. We think he is engaged in anti-competitive practices in order to extend his dominant position in the British media market - practices which damage us commercially.

Yesterday the central issue was laid bare, not by us but by the Financial Times, which brought its unsentimental business perspective to bear on the matter. "Rupert Murdoch told colleagues last week that he would telephone Tony Blair for help in ascertaining whether the Italian government would block his proposed pounds 4bn acquisition of Mediaset, Italy's leading commercial television network."

This sheds an ironic light on the Prime Minister's insistence that the Government would treat Mr Murdoch no differently from any other proprietor - and an even more bitterly ironic light on his pre-election pledge to offer trade unions and employers "fairness not favours". The Downing Street switchboard should now be considered an open helpline for any company considering a foreign takeover, or for any union worried about employment rights.