Political Commentary: Soon Mr Murdoch won't need to court any party

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The Independent Online
IT IS a mistake to think that nothing ever happens in this month. The USSR invaded Czechoslovakia, Richard Nixon resigned, Iraq invaded Kuwait and two world wars began in August. But Parliament and the Law Courts are not normally sitting. Hence the phrase 'the silly season', when the newspapers are supposed to fill their columns with trivial and exaggerated material. I have also heard the different - or supplementary - explanation that the phrase derived from the conclusion of the 'Season' and the exodus of the upper classes to the grouse moors on the 12th, so that their activities in London could no longer be chronicled. This, I should have thought, would have made the season less rather than more silly.

In any month Mr Rupert Murdoch's remark that he might well support Mr Tony Blair would be worth considering at further length. It was made casually in an interview with Der Spiegel. Mr Murdoch's intentions can and often do change. He is capable of promising one thing and doing another. Not only is he capable of it: he rather makes a habit of it. He is reminiscent of the newly arrived Welsh minister who was being discussed by two women members of his congregation:

'A fine looking man.'

'With a lovely singing voice.'

'And so powerful in prayer.'

'Whata pity he's such a bloody liar.'

Mr Murdoch's untruths - if you prefer, his failures to keep his word - are exhaustively set out in Mr William Shawcross's biography. Indeed, Mr Shawcross's tone is so indulgent, his admiration so complete, that he does not seem to realise the enormity of what he is retailing. In this respect he resembles another devoted biographer, A J P Taylor, of another newspaper proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook. The consequence is that their words are all the more persuasive. We believe them because they have no idea that what they are telling us is so damaging.

Mr Murdoch's way is to promise, before a takeover, that of course young Mr Valiant will remain editor of his paper; after a few months he is replaced by the even younger Mr Drainage. And, yes, old Lord Honour shall stay on the board; but soon he makes way for Mr Scumbag from Sydney. Mr Murdoch's promise to consider supporting Labour is not of this kind. It is hardly a promise at all. But he has always moved towards an accommodation with those who hold political power, or look as if they may soon be about to hold it.

The political influence of newspapers is much exaggerated. There was once a poll showing that a substantial proportion of Daily Express readers liked the paper for its Labour politics (though that, I should explain, was in Beaverbrook's time, before the Express became the Conservatives' sole reliable friend in what used to be Fleet Street). A slight majority of Sun readers are Labour voters. Nevertheless, Tory MPs continue to attach the greatest importance to it - much as Labour prime ministers did to the Daily Mirror.

The present Tory discomfiture is quite funny. In the 1980s there was a Faustian compact between successive administrations and Mr Murdoch. He would support them; while they, in return, would ease his path in acquiring newspapers and expanding his television interests. This support was, to be accurate, rarely given to the government but, rather, to Lady Thatcher ('Battling Maggie', as she was to be dubbed). There is little doubt that it was she, rather than the ministers surrounding her - mainly Poms of the most whingeing variety - who appealed to Mr Murdoch and his editors.

Here, by the way, we should note that it is not entirely pious to claim that Mr Murdoch's editors have some freedom. Today is now largely the old Daily Mirror in exile. Today is more or less a Labour paper and will, I predict, continue so, even in the election - the time when brute loyalties are asserted.

The Mr Worldly Wisemen think that Mr Murdoch said what he did because he wanted something out of a Labour government. They may be right. I think it more likely that he is, as Mr Richard Ingrams long ago predicted he would become, bored with the Conservatives and believes that Labour is going to win. Anyway Miss Marjorie ('Mo') Mowlam, the femme fatale of the People's Party, who is responsible for these matters, has - to forestall any suggestion that the party is about to get into bed with Rupert - told us what Labour's position is.

She says that the party is 'conducting a comprehensive review of the regulations concerning media ownership'. Three 'clear principles' will be applied. First, for employment reasons the maximum number of programmes should be produced. Second, the quality for which our television is 'world-renowned' should not be 'compromised' in pursuit of a larger market. Third, the 'maximum choice' should be available. Make of that what you will]

In this country politicians, Labour and Conservative alike, regard television as their predecessors in the 18thcentury did the press: as something to be cajoled, bribed, bullied and, ultimately, controlled. This period is now coming to an end, not because of any protest from libertarian organisations - which tend to be more restrictive in their views than anyone - but because of technology. The time is approaching when the politicians will no longer be able to control what we see on our screens. Mr Murdoch will not need the good will of any government.

I should not like readers to think, however, that politicians have ceased to have any interest at all in newspapers. For instance, the Fair Trading Act 1973 provides that no paper shall be transferred to another with a circulation of half-a-million or more unless the Secretary of State (today Mr Michael Heseltine) gives his consent. A transfer is ridiculously defined as the acquisition of a mere 25 per cent shareholding. A reference to the Monopolies Commission is required before the minister's consent can be given. But he can still disregard its findings. And the requirement can be and usually is waived completely if the newspaper being transferred is allegedly not a going concern. This is what happened with Mr Murdoch's acquisitions. These provisions are iniquitous not because he managed regularly to circumvent them but because they give what in practice amounts to unfettered discretion to a party hack. I would sooner have an honest free-for-all than this denial of the rule of law.

Shortly I propose to investigate the practical effects of the Common Agricultural Policy in provincial France. I shall be heading roughly in the direction of Toulouse, where - avoiding boiled sweets, chocolate bars, unskimmed milk and those lethal cheese sandwiches - the citizens adhere to a rigorous diet of pure pork sausages, sliced potatoes fried in goose fat, preserved duck and red wine, so ensuring the lowest death rate from heart attacks in France or, I believe, the entire western world. You cannot be too careful with your health: that is what I say to Mrs Virginia Bottomley whenever we meet. I shall be back, God willing, at Brighton for the Liberal Democrats, God help them.

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