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Friday, March 27, 1998 Published at 16:05 GMT

UK: Politics

Row over Blair's 'Murdoch intervention'
image: [ Murdoch told The Times of conversation with PM ]
Murdoch told The Times of conversation with PM

Downing Street has rejected claims that Tony Blair intervened on behalf of the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch to help him to buy an Italian television company.

A spokesman for Number 10 said Mr Blair wanted to help British business where he could, saying he treated all businesspeople in the same way

It follows an interview by Mr Murdoch to one of his own UK titles in which he said he had asked Mr Blair to contact Italian PM Romani Prodi over a deal he was planning.

[ image: Blair: accused of being in hock to Murdoch]
Blair: accused of being in hock to Murdoch
Mr Murdoch wanted to buy into Italy's huge Mediaset empire, owned by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, but feared he faced an uphill battle against politicians opposed to the deal.

Mr Blair agreed to gather information for Mr Murdoch by contacting Mr Prodi, the media mogul said.

According to The Times, Mr Blair rang Mr Murdoch back within two days to tell him that Mr Prodi wanted an Italian purchaser for Mediaset.

Mr Murdoch later withdrew his offer for Mediaset shares, made through BSkyB.

Snoddy: 'Murdoch was after information' (3' 36')
Speaking on BBC Radio Four's The World At One, The Times' media editor Raymond Snoddy said: "When Downing Street says there was no lobbying, I am sure that is true.

"What Rupert Murdoch was looking for was information, is there any point in going ahead with this deal or am I going to be politically blocked."

Growing row

The private conversations between Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch have sparked a political row.

Labour critics claim New Labour is in hock to the Australian-born boss of News Corp.

[ image: Murdoch: claims of close relationship with Blair]
Murdoch: claims of close relationship with Blair
His top-selling British tabloid newspaper, The Sun, swung behind Blair and New Labour during the 1997 General Election, a key shift in the British political landscape.

Mr Blair has also recently been accused of blocking competition legislation which would have affected Mr Murdoch's policy of cutting the cover price of his newspapers.

A Conservative MP, Tim Collins, has written to Mr Blair, saying the affair raised question's about the Labour leader's relationship with Mr Murdoch.

PM defended

Downing Street strongly denies that Mr Blair intervened in the Mediaset sale but admitted the Prime Minister spoke to Mr Prodi.

A spokesman stressed Mr Prodi contacted Mr Blair first - and the telephone call's content remains private.

He also said there was "no impropriety" in Mr Blair speaking privately to businessmen.

"The prime minister is able to speak privately with business people when necessary," the spokesman said.

"The Prime Minister would want to help British business when he can."

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