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Murdoch set to back Blair - for a place in his boardroom

Andrew Grice / London independent | July 29 2006

The media magnate Rupert Murdoch is expected to offer Tony Blair a senior role in his News Corporation empire when he stands down as Prime Minister.

Allies of Mr Blair insist he has made no decisions about his plans when he leaves Downing Street -- almost certainly next year. But some friends say a seat on the board of News Corp could tempt the outgoing Prime Minister, as it would dovetail neatly with the lucrative United States lecture circuit. Mr Blair's popularity at home may be waning, but he remains big box office in America. His close relationship with Mr Murdoch will be highlighted tomorrow when he addresses the annual gathering of News Corp's executives and senior journalists from around the world.

After meeting President George Bush at the White House yesterday, Mr Blair flew on to California where, amid the stunning scenery at Pebble Beach, 130 miles south of San Francisco, he will speak about "leadership in the modern world".

The five-day event is entitled Imagining The Future, reflecting Mr Murdoch's recently-discovered interest in new media. Other star guests are expected to include Bill and Hillary Clinton; Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator turned Governor of California; Bono, the U2 singer and campaigner for the developing world; Shimon Peres, the Israeli Vice Premier; and former US Vice-President Al Gore, who will show his film on climate change.

Mr Blair's appearance is seen as a mutual "thank you" as he enters the final phase of his premiership. Mr Murdoch admired Mr Blair's support for President Bush over the Iraq war, which his newspapers around the world endorsed.

Mr Murdoch has already rewarded Jose Maria Aznar, the former Spanish Prime Minister and another backer of the conflict, with a seat on his board. "Mr Aznar earned worldwide respect for his strong economic record and unflinching stand against domestic and international terrorism," the News Corp chairman and chief executive said when he announced the appointment last month. It is easy to imagine him uttering similar words about Mr Blair.

Nor is Mr Blair's presence at tomorrow's event a great surprise. In 1995, as Leader of the Opposition, he raised eyebrows by travelling even further to address the same gathering when he went to Hayman Island, off Australia. The trip cemented a relationship that has apparently served both men well. Under Neil Kinnock's leadership, Mr Murdoch's journalists were banned from Labour's briefings and its annual conference as a legacy of the bitter industrial dispute at News International's Wapping plant. The hostile coverage of Mr Kinnock in Murdoch-owned papers, notably The Sun, led Mr Blair to declare: "Never again." He courted the media magnate as much as Mr Murdoch courted him. "It is better to ride the tiger's back than let it rip your throat out," he explained.

Some Blair allies insist that Mr Murdoch's alleged influence over decisions affecting his business interests and Europe have been greatly exaggerated. But Lance Price, who was deputy to the Downing Street communications director Alastair Campbell, is not among them. He has described Mr Murdoch as "the 24th member of the Cabinet", saying: "No big decision could ever be made inside No 10 without taking account of the likely reaction of three men - Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch."

The relationship certainly paid dividends for Mr Blair. Mr Campbell regards decision of The Sun, once a cheerleader for Margaret Thatcher, to back Labour at the 1997 election as his finest hour. The contrast with Kimnock era could not have been more striking.

Mr Blair meets the media mogul two or three times a year but goes to some lengths to keep their contacts secret. The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Avebury and the journalist James Macintyre have been beavering away under the Freedom of Information Act to find out more about their discussions. They had a mini coup when the Information Commissioner ordered Downing Street to be more open. Its response, however, was to disclose that Mr Blair had "a telephone conversation with Rupert Murdoch on 13 March 2003". No 10 is arguing that "personal and political" discussions between the two men do not have to be revealed.

Proprietor's influence on British politics

* SINGLE CURRENCY

Mr Murdoch's newspapers, notably The Sun, are hostile to European Union integration. Mr Blair told The Sun about his "love" for the pound before the 1997 election but once in power was determined to take Britain into the euro. The papers put strong pressure on Mr Blair to drop his plans to call a referendum on the issue.

* EUROPE

The Murdoch empire also turned its guns on the proposed EU constitution. It lobbied hard for a referendum but needed inside help to secure a Blair U-turn - this time from Jack Straw, then Foreign Secretary. In the event, the constitution died a natural death after it was rejected by the people of France and the Netherlands. But Mr Blair's decision to promise a referendum played an important part in persuading the French President Jacques Chirac to follow suit.

* MEDIA POLICY

Mr Blair had no time for Labour MPs demanding that Mr Murdoch be forced to choose between his newspaper and TV interests in Britain. Mr Murdoch was unhappy when his businesses were referred to the Office of Fair Trading but it took no action against him. In 1998, Mr Blair rang Romano Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister, to test reaction to Mr Murdoch's possible takeover bid for the Mediaset broadcasting empire, owned by Silvio Berlusconi.

* THE BBC

Mr Murdoch is not happy that Labour's generally pro-BBC stance has allowed the corporation to expand into new media. He is now lobbying against the BBC's bid for the licence fee to rise by 2.3 per cent on top of inflation each year and there are signals the Government will reject the request.

* ECONOMIC POLICY

Mr Murdoch and his emissary, the American journalist Irwin Stelzer, have urged Labour to introduce business-friendly policies such as lower taxes and criticised some of the Government's programmes as too bureaucratic. He has not won all his arguments but appears to be broadly happy with the general direction of policy.

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