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Tuesday, September 21, 1999 Published at 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK


Murdoch: Going soft on the single currency?

Murdoch: Support for euro would be vital

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

The news that media mogul Rupert Murdoch has had a secret meeting with European Commission President Romano Prodi has set pulses racing in Downing Street.

Tony Blair will be desperately hoping that the move signals a possible conversion of Mr Murdoch in favour of the single European currency.

Indeed, it is not the first time Messrs Murdoch, Prodi and Blair have been linked.

Last year, Mr Blair was accused of trying to oil the wheels of a Murdoch deal to buy into the Italian TV network Mediaset when it emerged the British premier had raised the matter with Mr Prodi, who was then Italian prime minister.

[ image: The Sun changes tack at election]
The Sun changes tack at election
Despite its support for New Labour, Rupert Murdoch's flagship British newspaper, the Sun, has taken a fiercely anti-euro stand and is involved in a high-profile campaign to "save the pound."

It has even gone so far as to claim Mr Blair's support for the single currency might make him "the most dangerous man in Britain".

But the prime minister is committed to holding a referendum on Britain joining the euro if he wins the next election.

And he knows that if Mr Murdoch continues his campaign, he will have a major job on his hands persuading voters to back the move.

Any sign that Mr Murdoch may be preparing a change of tack will be greeted with delight in Downing Street.

Setting agenda

And it is hard to over estimate the importance of Rupert Murdoch in setting the UK's political agenda.

Some have gone so far as to claim that the newspaper's support for New Labour was the single biggest factor in ensuring Tony Blair's landslide victory at the last general election.

[ image: Commission president Romano Prodi dined with Murdoch in Rome]
Commission president Romano Prodi dined with Murdoch in Rome
That is certainly over stating the case, but there is no doubt that, without the Sun's backing, Mr Blair would have had a much tougher fight.

Before the election, Mr Blair was accused of deliberately cosying up to Mr Murdoch in an attempt to win his backing in the campaign.

He had at least one meeting with the newspaper owner and later gave the Sun an article suggesting he was not whole heartedly committed to joining the euro.

Critics claim that was the price Mr Blair paid for the Sun's astonishing political U turn at a crucial point in the election campaign.

Previously the newspaper had been fiercely pro-Tory and boasted about its alleged influence on voters.

[ image: The Sun's depiction of Blair when it questioned his euro policy]
The Sun's depiction of Blair when it questioned his euro policy
On the day of the 1992 general election, its front page carried a picture of the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock as a light bulb with the headline "If Neil Kinnock wins, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?"

When John Major pulled off a surprise victory the newspaper trumpeted it was the Sun "wot won it".

Labour then became obsessed with the newspaper and appeared ready to do almost anything to win Mr Murdoch over to its side - and it worked.

One of the key events of the 1997 election campaign was when the Sun declared it now supported New Labour.

The Sun turns

But, once the poll was won, it became increasingly angry at the prime minister's support for the single currency and started its "save the pound" campaign.

In their darkest moments, Labour bosses have nightmares about Mr Murdoch deciding at the next election that the government's support for the euro is enough to persuade him to switch back to the Tories. It is an unlikely scenario but cannot be totally ruled out.

What is certain is that Mr Murdoch will decide his stand on the euro not on political grounds, but on hard-headed business grounds.

If he decided joining will be good for his enterprises, most believe he would not hesitate to change direction.

His desire to expand his media empire into Italy may help persuade him that the euro isn't such a bad thing after all.

And, if that happens, Tony Blair's hopes of winning a referendum on the issue will have been given a massive boost and, once again, the Sun will be able to claim it won it for Labour.

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