Brown/Murdoch relations go into freefall

By Emmeline Saunders

Relations between the government and media mogul Rupert Murdoch continued to hit new lows today, following the Sun’s attack on the prime minister’s now-infamous letter of condolence.

The government has now threatened to strip Sky, owned by News Corporation (of which News International is a subsidiary), of its £250 million deal to broadcast live coverage of the Ashes.

On Tuesday night, Gordon Brown personally called Mr Murdoch, whose newspaper The Sun ran a story on Monday attacking the prime minister for writing a condolence letter littered with alleged spelling mistakes.

Today Downing Street refused to be drawn on the content of the conversation, but the prime minister’s spokesman sought to play it down, stating that the pair spoke regularly.

“He has regular communications with Rupert Murdoch, as you would imagine, and he has the most enormous personal regard for Rupert Murdoch,” the spokesman said.

The Sun’s ‘Don’t you know there’s a bloody war on?’ campaign against the government’s handling of the conflict in Afghanistan has rumbled on all summer, culminating in a sudden switch of allegiance to the Conservatives during Labour’s party conference this autumn.

However, management at News International appeared to be taken aback by the backlash against The Sun’s letter row. On Wednesday the tabloid attempted to draw a line under the matter with a story headed ‘Mum ends letter row’.

James Murdoch, chief executive of News Corp in Europe and Asia, and Rebekah Wade, News International’s chief exec and former Sun editor, sought a meeting with a senior minister on Tuesday, it was claimed.

But yesterday Lord Mandelson denounced The Sun for its “bad taste and crude politicking”, and claimed the tabloid had entered into a ‘bargain’ that would be rewarded under a Conservative government.

The business secretary claimed the biased agenda pushed by the paper was followed up by Sky, “which then puts pressure on the BBC to follow suit”.

He added this had “wider implications for the election, which, in my view, is of wider public concern”.

A review of important sports events is expected to recommend that ‘crown jewel’ ones, such as the Ashes and the Olympics, are returned to free-to-air channels.

The review will be unveiled by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Culture secretary Ben Bradshaw has been hardening the government line against the Murdoch empire, after telling the party conference that Conservative media policy was totally aligned with the commercial interests of News Corp.