Rupert Murdoch: Labour forays into the lion’s den
Labour politicians have been pleasantly surprised when meeting the media tycoon: ‘a bastard you could deal with’
Drinks, dinners and audiences with Rupert Murdoch have long been a political rite of passage for those at the top – or those on the way up.
In July 1995, Tony Blair incurred the wrath of old Labour by accepting an invitation to address the News Corporation conference on Hayman island in Australia. Despite the fury of much of his party – not least Neil Kinnock, who felt he had been vilified by the Sun – Blair decided it was too good an opportunity to miss.
“It seems obvious,” he writes in his memoir, A Journey. “The country’s most powerful newspaper proprietor, whose publications have hitherto been rancorous in their opposition to the Labour party, invites us into the lion’s den. You go, don’t you?”
Blair also notes that Paul Keating, then prime minister of Australia, felt Murdoch was “a bastard, but one you could deal with”.
What did the man who led Labour to victory in 1997 make of the media mogul? “I thought Rupert an enigma, and the more I got to know him, the more I thought so,” Blair writes. “In the end – and I am aware of the shrieks of disbelief as I write this – I came to have a grudging respect and even liking for him. He was hard, no doubt. He was rightwing. I did not share or like his attitudes on Europe, social policy or on issues such as gay rights, but there were two points of connection: he was an outsider, and he had balls.
“The ‘outsider’ thing was crucial to understanding him. He remained both immensely powerful and, at certain quite elemental points, anti-establishment. He would admire Mrs Thatcher, but not necessarily the Tory party with all its baggage, airs and graces. That gave me something to work with.”
Blair’s predecessor, John Major, was rather more measured and formal in his appraisal of Murdoch.
“I have never found Murdoch an unpleasant man; in person he is reserved, almost shy, and far from the bullying press baron of legend,” he wrote in John Major: The Autobiography.
David Blunkett also found the News International chief a less formidable figure in person than many might assume.
“I had dinner with Rupert Murdoch at the Hampstead home of Les Hinton [chief executive of News International UK],” he writes in The Blunkett Tapes: My Life in the Bear Pit. “[He] was perfectly decent to deal with – very reasonable, although I accept that he may not be so in business matters.”
A hint of that famous steeliness comes out later in the book, though, when Blunkett recalls being invited to Wapping and offered a drink and a column on the Sun by Murdoch.
“I accept. What immediately goes through my head is … you don’t refuse Rupert twice.”
In the early 1990s, another big New Labour beast declared himself not to be a huge Murdoch fan, despite being a close friend of the tycoon’s daughter, Elisabeth.
“If Murdoch cannot be beaten – and there are many who believe that his media holdings need to be cut down to size – we should encourage more British media companies to grow, compete and give Mr Murdoch a harder run for his megabucks,” Peter Mandelson wrote in the Daily Mail in January 1994.
But it soon became obvious that the New Labour-News International partnership could be helpful – and possibly vital – to the political party’s electoral fortunes.
Introducing Blair at the Hayman Island conference in 1995, Murdoch joked: “If the British press is to be believed, today is all part of a Blair-Murdoch flirtation. If that flirtation is ever consummated, Tony, I suspect we will end up making love like two porcupines — very carefully.”
For one partner at least, the prickly pain that the relationship causes now appears to have overtaken the pleasure it yields..
By Sam Jones and Farah Jassat. Published on guardian.co.uk: 11 July 2011