Just what words passed between PBL CEO John Alexander and Rupert Murdoch as they sat at the head table at The Bulletin‘s special lunch at Machiavelli’s eatery in Sydney last Monday, which saw the News Corp proprietor named as the most influential Australian of all time?

Followibg that lunch, Murdoch’s Sydney-based papers have aggressively pursued the Nine Network’s ham-fisted attempts to suppress the highly damaging claims in the affidavit prepared by its former News and Current Affairs boss, Mark Llewellyn.

News Ltd insiders say the Murdoch who returned from that lunch was a very different man to the one before lunch. News Ltd executive chairman, John Hartigan, visited the news floor at Holt Street on Monday afternoon to pass on the owner’s wishes and to urge the papers to cover the story.

Then Nine struck back Monday night with its injunction that stopped coverage in NSW, and which saw Murdoch urge his editors to push for publication: it also saw News Ltd join Fairfax in a joint action in the NSW Supreme Court and then saw The Australian publish the document in every state bar Sydney.

Nine abandoned its attempts to suppress the affidavit (and to try and find out the source) late Friday. When asked why News was running so hard against a fellow Australian media mogul, insiders replied rhetorically: “Think about it. Who’s back in the country?”

But the most tantalising question is what was said or happened in the small talk at the lunch between Alexander and Murdoch? Whatever it was, we saw a radical difference in approach to being a media mogul last week: There was an energetic 74-year-old Murdoch urging his papers onto a good story and goading them to cover it with intensity, chatting to prime ministers and ministers and effectively killing off the Howard Government’s poorly conceived media law changes, and then going to Melbourne to meet his mother.

And what was his younger mogul rival doing? Shipping his polo ponies to Britain, playing a chukka or two and allowing a serious PR crisis affecting his companies to run out of control in Australia. Last week confirmed Rupert Murdoch’s award as the most influential Australian of all time.

Peter Fray

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