Gingrich, Murdoch discussed Fox fight


WASHINGTON -- Communications executive Rupert Murdoch was accompanied by his Washington lobbyist when he met with Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich in late November, and the three men discussed Mr. Murdoch's fight over federal regulations that could cost him billions of dollars, the media magnate's spokesman said yesterday.

Within a week of the meeting, Mr. Murdoch's publishing company, HarperCollins, was discussing a $2 million book advance with Mr. Gingrich. The advance had ballooned to $4.5 million by the time it was announced in late December, although Mr. Gingrich subsequently relinquished it and has yet to actually sign a contract with HarperCollins.

Spokesmen for Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Gingrich reiterated yesterday that nothing improper occurred at the meeting on Nov. 28, and that the book deal was not discussed there.

But the disclosure of the lobbyist's presence, reported yesterday by the Daily News of New York, prompted additional Democratic lawmakers to urge the speaker to call for an outside counsel to investigate the matter.

The Democrats stopped short of saying that they would go to the House floor to call for an outside counsel themselves.

The House ethics committee is already reviewing Mr. Gingrich's book contract and other financial matters, including his political action committee and a college course he teaches. It has not yet decided whether to proceed with an investigation.

Mr. Gingrich's book deal originally raised questions, among Democrats and Republicans alike, for its potential to make him appear to be cashing in on his new prominence, and he gave up the advance to quell any controversy. But reports of his meeting with Mr. Murdoch, emerging in bits and pieces, have revived interest.

The presence of a lobbyist at the meeting, normally a routine matter, becomes potentially significant now that it is clear that Mr. Murdoch's regulatory concerns were discussed there. It is also of interest because it has not been mentioned before by spokesmen for either of the two men.

Howard J. Rubenstein, Mr. Murdoch's spokesman, said yesterday that when Mr. Murdoch met with Mr. Gingrich, they spent "95 percent" of their time discussing the expected changes that the newly elected Republican congressional majority would bring to Washington.

"In passing, there was mention of the NBC challenge," he added, referring to the network's argument that Mr. Murdoch's Fox television stations violate federal regulations against foreign ownership of broadcast licenses. NBC contends that Fox is owned by Mr. Murdoch's News Corp., which is based in Australia, but Mr. Murdoch, now a U.S. citizen, contends that he is the owner.

Mr. Rubenstein said that discussion of NBC's challenge to Fox "was not the purpose of the visit," that Mr. Murdoch had not been seeking "any change" in legislation and that the meeting "has been blown out of proportion."

He said Preston Padden, Mr. Murdoch's lobbyist concentrating on matters involving Fox, had accompanied Mr. Murdoch because he always did so when the executive went to Capitol Hill, which he has been doing for years. Mr. Gingrich was just one of 18 officials whom they met with that week, Mr. Rubenstein said.

He said the Nov. 28 meeting was the first time Mr. Murdoch had met Mr. Gingrich, who was preparing to become speaker of the House in January. "It was a courtesy call to introduce himself," Mr. Rubenstein said. "He was not looking for legislative help."

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