BROOKE GLADSTONE: As I'm sure you already know, the British government and the BBC are at each other's throats. To recap, BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan accused the Blair administration of "sexing up" the weapons of mass destruction dossier which led to the government's war against the BBC, which led in turn to the suicide of weapons expert and BBC source David Kelly. Media reporter Michael Wolff just came back from the International Television Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland and as he reports in this weeks' New York Magazine, there is a third player in this murky drama -- Rupert Murdoch. Ever since Tony Blair was first elected prime minister -- a feat many attribute to the endorsements of the traditionally right wing Murdoch press, Blair and Murdoch have become strange bedfellows indeed. Michael Wolff joins me now to try and explain this unlikely relationship. Michael, welcome to the show.
MICHAEL WOLFF: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What does Blair gain from his association with Murdoch?
MICHAEL WOLFF: Well in very clear terms he gains the support of Murdoch's media, and Murdoch's media is profoundly powerful. Principally it's the Times and the Sun -- not to mention his broadcast media. But the other side of that is perhaps more valuable which is that he's not attacked by Murdoch [LAUGHTER] and-- there are many people who believe you could not be the prime minister of the UK if you were going head to head with Murdoch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And let's talk about how Murdoch is positioned there. Obviously if he strengthens his hand with the government, he has a better shot at changing regulations that would enable him to get a bigger piece of the media pie.
MICHAEL WOLFF: I, I'm not sure if that train hasn't left the station some time ago, [LAUGHTER] and it is not so much that Murdoch curries favor with the government but rather the government curries favor with Murdoch. People go further to say that part of the Blair animosity toward the BBC is that he is in some partnership with Murdoch, and this is in part Murdoch's war with the BBC. Murdoch looks at the BBC and sees two things that he has campaigned against before which is the British establishment which he has been always opposed to and fought and been a thorn in the side of -- and it's the liberal establishment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So this isn't just a business fight as you suggest in your piece. There is a sort of proxy cultural battle going on in which the BBC represents one important segment of the British public and-- Murdoch and Fox and Sky represent another!
MICHAEL WOLFF: Exactly. I mean it is the divide that has been fought in the UK for 20 years, and it's functionally the Thatcher divide. The social welfare establishment, the non-free enterprise establishment come to be represented very clearly by the BBC, and in turn Murdoch stands alone as the entrepreneur - the Thatcher guy -the guy that is opposed to British snobbishness and a certain sort of self-satisfaction, and certainly that traditional social welfare liberalism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now the BBC is facing a charter review. It happens every ten years. It's coming up now in 2006 when the budget and performance of the company is assessed. Without the backing of the license fee which every Brit with a TV has to pay annually, would the BBC be under threat from direct competition from Murdoch?
MICHAEL WOLFF: Oh-- well, without question! I mean the fundamental organizing principle of the BBC is the licensing fee. I mean if you took away the licensing fee and privatized the BBC, could you create a viable media organization? I'm sure you could. The BBC is one of the biggest media companies in the world. Now that's not what Murdoch wants. In fact, the last thing on earth [LAUGHTER] Murdoch would want is for there to be a private BBC competing with a private Sky. In the ideal world, from the Murdoch vantage point, the BBC would be something like public television in the U.S. -- there, but hardly there. There is obviously a charter review coming up, and if he can grab a little more leverage and power at the expense of the BBC, he will certainly be there to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So who do you think will win?
MICHAEL WOLFF:I actually think that there's no question that the BBC will win. It is almost impossible in the American context to explain the pervasive power of the BBC. And I don't think Murdoch has any illusion that he ever replaces -certainly in terms of market share, no less -the emotional center that the BBC represents in the heart of the British people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so what is Murdoch's ultimate goal here?
MICHAEL WOLFF:To build the biggest media organization that he can possibly build -- to get the greatest share he can possibly get -- to build the strongest brand. But if it were necessary for him to sell out his ideology to do that, I am sure he would in a second.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay! Thanks very much!
MICHAEL WOLFF: Any time!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Wolff covers the media beat for New York Magazine. [MUSIC]