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Murdoch dines with British anti-EU leader, critics cry foul

Chairman and CEO of News Corporation Rupert Murdoch arrives at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 24, 2013. REUTERS/L
Chairman and CEO of News Corporation Rupert Murdoch arrives at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 24, 2013. REUTERS/L

By Andrew Osborn

LONDON (Reuters) - Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch has held a dinner meeting with Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-European Union UK Independence Party, prompting critics to accuse him of using his clout to interfere in Britain's debate about the European Union.

Prime Minister David Cameron promised to try to renegotiate Britain's membership of the EU and to hold a referendum on staying in or leaving by the end of 2017, a pledge which fueled public debate between supporters and opponents.

A spokesman for UKIP, which favors Britain leaving the EU, said the dinner took place at Murdoch's London flat on Tuesday. He declined to divulge details of what was discussed.

"There was dinner on Tuesday night and it was at Murdoch's invitation," the spokesman said.

Separately, Farage told the BBC that Murdoch was "a remarkable bloke" who had been keen to learn more about UKIP.

UKIP, which has no MPs in the British parliament but which has promised a political "earthquake" in European Parliament elections next year, beat the ruling Conservatives into third place at a vote for a parliamentary seat earlier this month, shocking the political establishment.

In messages posted on a social networking site after the dinner, Murdoch said Farage was "reflecting opinion" and wrote that new leaders were "emerging on distant horizon" in Britain, and Italy, which he also visited.

Peter Wilding, director of British Influence, a group campaigning for Britain to stay inside the EU, said Murdoch's meeting had helped UKIP to enter the political mainstream.

"It's dangerous and it's mischievous," he told Reuters. "For Murdoch anti-Europeanism is a religion and his influence over the debate has been hugely powerful and hugely negative."

In January, Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive officer of News Corp, dined with George Osborne, Britain's finance minister, Boris Johnson, London's mayor, and Michael Gove, the education secretary, in similar circumstances.

Roy Greenslade, Professor of Journalism at London's City University, said the Farage meeting showed that Murdoch's evidence to an official inquiry into media ethics set up after a phone hacking scandal was at odds with his own behavior.

"He's playing politics, something he says he doesn't do," Greenslade told Reuters. "At the inquiry he said politicians seek him out, but here he is seeking them out."

Murdoch's meeting was a ploy to pile pressure on Cameron to take an even tougher line on the EU, Greenslade suggested. That opinion was echoed echoed by Wilding, who said Murdoch was trying to "encourage dissent in the Conservative party to destabilize Cameron" whose leadership has come under pressure.

Britain faces a general election in 2015 and The Daily Telegraph newspaper, citing "well-placed sources", said Farage had told Murdoch he was ready to join forces with the ruling Conservative party if its leader - Cameron - stepped aside.

But what really mattered, said Greenslade, was what Murdoch decided to do after the meeting.

"It's what he orders his editors to do that's important. He still has three influential newspapers...and his influence is through the editorial columns of those newspapers. If they say they believe in disengagement from the EU and are somewhat sympathetic to Farage that is hugely influential."

A spokesman for News Corp said the company did not discuss the private engagements of its senior executives.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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