Murdoch treads dangerous path

This general election promises to be the dreariest in living memory. Apart from a few diehard Tory supporters who fervently believe in miracles, no one seriously expects the pollsters to get it wrong this time round. According to Gallup’s latest offering, Tony Blair’s party is now 28 points in the lead which, even allowing for sampling errors and likely erosion of support as election day draws near, seems an unbeatable level of support.

All the more interesting, therefore, that Rupert Murdoch’s political ‘volte face’ has created such a brouhaha in media circles. By all accounts, he personally instructed the editors of The Sun and News of the World which way their papers would vote on the very day the election was called. Times Newspapers, on the other hand, will be allowed to tread a more circumspect route. Hardly a surprise really, in view of Blair’s open dalliance with Murdoch in the past year and the latter’s increasingly vocal disillusionment with post-Thatcher Toryism.

Whether, in view of the poll lead, tabloid support will make a material difference, or ever did for that matter, is highly debatable. ‘It was The Sun wot won it’ theory rests on a series of dogmatic assertions about some marginal constituencies – most of them supplied by The Sun, and widely disputed even at the time of the 1992 election. All that can be said of the tabloids is that the dogs won’t be barking for Major this time round.

Longer term, Murdoch’s decision becomes more interesting. As a result of it, a majority of the national press are not backing the Conservative Party, probably for the first time. Even the Express titles appear less fervent (no suggestion of course that this has anything to do with their proprietor being a leading Labour peer); Associated, meanwhile, is biding its time.

Will the press barons’ pragmatism pay off? Labour, probably wisely, has steered clear of any firm commitments in the area of media and marketing. However, a few hints dropped by Nigel Griffiths, shadow spokesman on consumer affairs, suggest a more draconian regulatory environment may be on its way. He is known, for example, to favour a trademark law with teeth. Likewise, we could expect toughened codes of advertising and sales promotion under a Labour government. And for the first time, the Advertising Standards Authority may be able to hobble persistent and flagrant offenders.

What other curbs would be imposed – for instance in the area of cross-media ownership – can only be guesswork. But it’s pretty safe to assume the Labour Party will be more interventionist in its outlook. So there’s an interesting irony in Murdoch, arch-supporter of Mrs Thatcher’s deregulatory dogma, supporting it.

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