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Monday, September 19, 2005 

Blair and Murdoch, the not so odd couple.

One is the prime minister of the United Kingdom, an Oxbridge educated barrister. The other is an Australian who has risen from reasonably humble beginnings to head one of the largest media empires in operation. One is meant to be a socialist, head of a party which for decades fought for the working man. The other is a major force behind conservatism, fights for complete domination of the media and has enriched himself and his family for decades while showering the public with propaganda. You would think that they would have nothing in common. You'd be utterly wrong.

The BBC and Downing Street were striving yesterday to avoid reopening old wounds after Rupert Murdoch said the prime minister had criticised the corporation's coverage of Hurricane Katrina as "full of hatred for America and gloating".

Downing Street signalled embarrassment as well as irritation over the widespread publicity given to Tony Blair's remark to the media tycoon, while senior BBC executives tried to play down the impact of the comments, made in a telephone call to Mr Murdoch last week.

Speaking on Friday night at a seminar hosted by former US president Bill Clinton, Mr Murdoch said: "Tony Blair - perhaps I shouldn't repeat this conversation - told me yesterday that he was in Delhi last week and he turned on the BBC World Service to see what was happening in New Orleans. And he said it was just full of hate for America and gloating about our troubles." Mr Murdoch, who regards the BBC as elitist and commercially unfair, has often used his newspapers to attack the broadcaster. His son James, chief executive of BSkyB, again criticised the corporation on Friday at a television industry conference in Cambridge.

Senior BBC executives yesterday refused to comment on Mr Murdoch's speech, saying they had received no official complaint from No 10, but privately greeted it with anger and incredulity. Nevertheless, most were relaxed about its impact, given the outpouring of public support that followed the Hutton report. "It says more about Blair's relationship with Murdoch than it does his relationship with the BBC," one executive said.

The BBC senior executives took the polite and low-key approach to such a ridiculous statement. That National Union of Journalists was not so subtle.

The NUJ has attacked Tony Blair for comments he reportedly made about the BBC over the weekend, saying his criticism of the corporation's coverage of Hurricane Katrina "exposed his contempt for public service broadcasting and the BBC in particular".

The NUJ general secretary, Jeremy Dear, said the suggestion that the BBC's coverage had been "full of hatred for America and gloating", revealed the prime minister's "craven devotion to President Bush ... only eclipsed by his craven devotion to Rupert Murdoch".

Mr Murdoch revealed Mr Blair's alleged comments at a seminar hosted by former American president Bill Clinton on Friday.

Mr Murdoch reportedly said: "Tony Blair - perhaps I shouldn't repeat this conversation - told me yesterday that he was in Delhi last week and he turned on the BBC World Service to see what was happening in New Orleans. And he said it was just full of hate for America and gloating about our troubles."

The NUJ said the comments showed that the prime minister was trying to curry favour with Mr Murdoch.

"Tony Blair's criticism of the BBC for exposing the divide between rich and poor in the US and the slowness of the emergency services to provide relief to the poor of New Orleans is beyond contempt, " Mr Dear said.

"Tony Blair has deregulated broadcasting to serve the interests of Rupert Murdoch. His latest attack on the BBC shows he is still doing Murdoch's bidding."

Both the BBC and Downing Street are trying to distance themselves from a possible fallout.

"We have received no complaint from Downing Street, so it would be remiss of us to comment on what has been reported as a private conversation," said a BBC spokewoman.

Yeah, I'd say that's pretty much closer to the truth. For a start, if Blair really did say that, he's even more out of touch than I thought he was. The American networks were also being just as critical of the relief effort, although the BBC was perhaps quicker to become frustrated and report on it. Secondly, I'm not sure in what sense Murdoch is using the phrase "our troubles". Just a reminder, Rupert. You're not American. You only became an American for tax purposes. Land of the free, etc. Blair is not going to forgive the BBC for the 45 minute report any time soon. Neither is he going to forget the interview with Jeremy Paxman at the election, which even I thought was over the top, nor the Question Time session when he was greeted with booing and also left with it howling around him. That the BBC is anything more pro-government than say, Channel 4 news is, is not the point. The BBC is publicly funded, and any questioning of his policy or investigations from now on may result in the charter now being drawn up dramatically changed.

Murdoch is dying to be able to gain an even bigger strangehold on the media in Britain. It's long been rumoured that he wished to buy into Channel 5, although the time has probably passed for such a move now. The Ofcom rules on impartiality and balance prevent him from turning Sky News into Fox News Britland. If Murdoch can get some more feathers in his cap before Blair steps down in favour of Brown, he'll try as hard as he can.

The real issue though with Murdoch and Blair has been the huge influence which his newspapers have had on the government. Ever since the 1992 election with the boast that "IT WAS THE SUN WOT WON IT" for the Tories, Labour as a whole has been completely craven towards the Sun and the Times. When the Sun switched to supporting Labour in 1997, it was a huge coup for Labour, whether it did any more to help their victory or not. The Hutton report itself was leaked to the Sun the day before it was published, with the source of the leak never properly identified. It's also highly rumoured that Blair gained the support of the Sun for this year's election thanks to him agreeing to hold a referendum on the European constitution, which is now unlikely to be held.

While Blair will no doubt be embarrassed in the short term by Murdoch's loose lips, it won't make any difference towards his position or devotion to courting Murdoch at every turn. While the Sun and Times are unlikely to change support or attack him now before the hand-over to Brown, Blair realises the more sycophantic he is, he may well be able to get him some kind of corporate job with News Corporation when he leaves politics. Blair doesn't care about the Labour party any longer; it always just his host for his own ambitions. Expect him to dump it as soon as he no longer needs it. If the Labour party has any sense left in its collective mind, it'll be sooner rather than later.

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