Un-Covering Livingston

While precious little about British political scandal has made the U.S. press this year, last Thursday's New York Times carried a story from across the pond detailing a sudden change of editorial policy at The Sun, Britain's leading tabloid.

After years of unhesitatingly "outing" gay public officials, and on the heels of playing up disclosures about the private lives of two cabinet ministers, The Sun suddenly changed its policy, the Times reported. "Our readers are tolerant of private behavior and find unwarranted intrusion offensive," The Sun editorialized.

However, although it raised the question, the Times did not probe for an answer as to "what exactly prompted The Sun's U-turn." Indeed, the paper noted, even a spokeswoman for The Sun's parent company "said she could not explain why The Sun decided to do what it did." Hard to say for certain, but Press Clips hazards a guess: It just might have had something to do with the increasingly symbiotic relationship between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Sun's owner, Rupert Murdoch.

The Australian-born press lord has never shied from using his holdings to suck up to whoever might be useful. That this applies to Blair was ably documented by Michael Leapman in the October Mother Jones, which, apparently, the Times didn't consult. According to Leapman, in September 1994— about the time that the British Conservatives' downward political spiral was increasing in velocity— Murdoch and his wife invited Mr. and Mrs. Blair to dinner. Although Labour was officially no friend of Murdoch's (he gained the party's enmity by breaking the London print unions in 1986), Blair dined with the Devil, who the next year invited him to speak at a NewsCorps management retreat in Australia. Dangling before Blair the whole time was the prospect of an endorsement from the Sun; six weeks prior to the 1997 elections, Blair got it.

The investment appears to have been a good one for Murdoch. Earlier this year he asked Blair to do a little recon for him on a potential business deal in Italy. The prime minister obliged, going so far as to sound out his Italian counterpart, Romano Prodi, about whether a Murdoch move in the Mediterranean media market would be well received. Blair seems only too happy to help on the domestic front as well. Earlier this year, the House of Lords trained its sights on Murdoch, attempting to introduce legislation that would prohibit his dubious practice of taking a loss on the newsstand price of his London Times. The measure, Leapman reports, remains bottled up in Parliament— thanks to New Labour.

Blair is not, however, completely on board Murdoch's corporate yacht, which may help explain the Sun's change in policy. While Blair has aided Murdoch, the tycoon doesn't cotton to the notion of Britain adopting the Euro currency and cementing ties with the European Union. According to Leapman, "Blair hopes the magnate and his editors will begin to see the virtues in establishing closer links," which would "make it easier to sell the [Euro] concept to voters."

Murdoch, however, has used his papers to skewer Blair on the issue, going so far to ask, on the Sun's front page, if Blair is "the most dangerous man in Britain." While Blair is by no means on the same thin ice that Clinton is, a series of other non-sex-related scandals have dogged him. Is it possible that Blair will appreciate the fact that the U.K.'s best-selling tab won't out any more ministers? Press Clips suspects Rupert might think it'll count for something.

Research: Lauren Reynolds

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