7 FEBRUARY 1981, Page 5


Were it not for my failing memory, I would be in the ideal position to furnish you, dear readers, with deep and penetrating insights into the character of Rupert Murdoch as a Young man. As it is, all I can remember about him really is his Australian accent. He spent, I believe, about three holidays – or parts of them – at my family's house in Hertfordshire while he was an undergraduate at Oxford. His father, Sir Keith Murdoch, had asked my mother if she would kindly keep an eye on the boy while he was in England. Rupert used to turn up on a motorbicycle and give my sisters rides on the back of it down a steep grass hill and across the croquet lawn. I have been trying to get my sisters, who are older than me, to tell me what he was like, but they have not been very helpful. They agree, however, that he was nice and jolly and straightforward. He even wrote one of them letters, Which she does not seem to have kept. It Was on Rupert's recommendation that I, Who can hardly have been more than ten Years old at the time, was privately tutored in the holidays by his best friend at Oxford, another very amiable Australian. I cannot remember why this extra tuition was required, but I do remember being made to read a very long novel about the Australian outback which I found incomprehensible. 811t, alas, it remains Rupert's Australian .4ccent that left the deepest impression. This of course, merely a reflection of the fact that to members of the English middle classes – particularly to those who have not encountered it before – the Australian accent is indescribably funny. It is unfortuna-te that one of my sisters has a rare talent 1Lor mimicry. What she may have contriPted to Rupert's drive to conquer the taglish establishment is something that °nIY history will relate.

"11',4.0w that Rupert is grown up and about to L ,„,e,enme proprietor of The Times, he is being eiaKen rather more seriously – some might absurdly seriously, An example of this vv, a.s the gravity with which MPs and others o_eb.tated his alleged interference with an ,e(1,1 °nal in the Sunday Times about the a'ankcdeover. Murdoch was visiting the paper, that all he apparently did was to notice a list of newspapers owned by the .anx1p.ress group failed to include the Daily Star ;,..cirnI)°int this omission out to the nearest ito alist. 'Thus,' writes Bruce Page, the erditner of the New Statesman, 'the Sunday leader which celebrated Rupert with Murcisoch,s, readiness to avoid interfering , iu Sunday Times leaders was one which 'himself had checked, altered and aPproved. Such absurdities apart, I would agree that there can be no real guarantee of the editorial independence of The Times and the Sunday Times other than Mr Murdoch's own commitment to it. One cannot know whether he feels such a commitment or not; but the fact that he has been falling over himself to give pledges of non-interference must surely be taken as a good sign rather than a bad one. I find further grounds for optimism in the character of Murdoch himself as it emerges from the most hostile of newspaper articles. Here a comparison with Sir James Goldsmith seems appropriate. Both men are portrayed, no doubt correctly, as 'ruthless', 'buccaneering' and so on. But the differences are more to the point. To summarise the impressions I have received, without knowing either of them, Goldsmith fakes his own opinions extremely seriously, Murdoch does not; Goldsmith's main reason for wanting newspapers is power, Murdoch's is money; Goldsmith thinks journalism is a desperately serious business, Murdoch thinks it is fun; Goldsmith has no idea what makes a successful newspaper, Murdoch does; Goldsmith is a pompous ass obsessed with conspiracies, Murdoch is not; Goldsmith wants a peerage, Murdoch well, this may be where my thesis falls down.

In the four weeks since I last wrote this Notebook so much has changed. Ronald Reagan has become President and is about to manufacture the neutron bomb, the hostages have returned home to one of the most sickening displays in history of American patriotism, the Labour Party has tried to commit collective suicide, the Gang of Three has become a Gang of Thirteen or more, and I have given up drinking. The last is, to me, the most interesting of these developments. It is also rather embarrassing. My mockery of the BUPA system of health 'screening', to which I unwisely subjected myself last December, brought swift and merciless retribution. My liver, they said, was functioning less than adequately on account (they impertinently suggested) of my excessive consumption of alcohol. I could only take their word for it. Now, to my considerable concern, I am beginning to find abstinence addictive. I am on the slippery slope to that nirvana which Mr Richard Ingram s and Mr Charles Douglas-Home already know so well. The news that my liver is now more or less restored to health has had no effect. The non-drinking habit is already too deeply ingrained. The sad thing about not drinking is that it is hard to think of anything to do except work. But there are some nice things. One is the boundless admiration one feels for one's own resolve. Another is that it may at last be possible to take wine into the cellar in the knowledge that it will not all be drunk before it gets to the top of the stairs. Reformed drinkers are supposed to be ill-tempered. Oddly enough, my experience has been the opposite, for the spectacle of a teetotaller seems to make drinkers illtempered. However, I feel that I am performing a service even to those who drink. By contributing to the decline in alcohol consumption – and I read that even beer sales have fallen by some two million pints a day – I may yet help persuade Sir Geoffrey Howe that an increase in the duty on alcohol in next month's budget will not be to the Treasury's advantage.

Geoffrey Keating, as his obituarist in The Times pointed out this week, 'took great pleasure in bringing together unlikely combinations of people'. But this is rather to underrate his role as one who oiled the wheels of social life. Without people like Geoffrey, I sometimes think, social life might come to an end. After a certain age, most people do not like to see anybody except the people they know already, unless someone forces them to do so. This was Geoffrey's speciality, and he practised it with remarkable success. His ,powers of persuasion, reinforced by most generous hospitality, were formidable, and I can think immediately of only three instances of failure. One was his failure to bring Himmler together with those sitting in judgment at Nuremberg; the Nazi beast took poison while in Geoffrey's care (through the negligence, it should be emphasised, not of Geoffrey but of one of his subordinates). Another was an unsuccessful attempt, through me, to get Auberon Waugh to lunch with Eldon Griffiths MP. The third was his inability to effect a meeting between Richard Ingrams and Sir James Goldsmith.

Ever since, just under a year ago, Southend magistrates fined a youth the incredible sum of £450 for urinating in pubilic, we have been keeping our eyes open for similar cases of judicial vindictiveness towards the young. This week a court in Brentford, Middlesex, passed down a similarly preposterous judgment. If the Daily Telegraph is to be believed, it fined a young man called Kirk Small £100, and ordered him to pay £25 compensation, for defacing a London Transport bench. Kirk was waiting for a bus in Hounslow. No doubt he was bored, so he took out his black pencil and wrote on the bench. What he wrote was neither obscene nor offensive, unlike most of the graffiti which are scrawled with impunity on walls all over the country. It was just his name— 'Kirk'.

Alexander Chancellor