Tony Blair defended his infamous courting of the press at the Leveson Inquiry today, describing it as a “strategic decision” to avoid the wrath of British media groups.
Blair, prime minister from 1997 to 2007, said he was not afraid of taking on the media, but was aware that if he did so he would be mired in a “long protracted battle that will shove everything else to the side.”
During his day-long evidence, which was interrupted by a protester breaking into the courtroom and branding him a “war criminal”, Blair said as a political leader he decided he would “manage that relationship [with the press] and not confront it.”
He repeatedly cited the Daily Mail as attacking him and his family “very effectively”, and slammed the “full-frontal” attacks launched on senior politicians by some sections of the press as “an abuse of power”
“If you fail to manage major forces in the media, the consequences are harsh,” Blair said, adding later that his sole piece of advice to any political leader would be to have a “solid media operation”.
“With any of these media groups, you fall out with them and you watch out,” he said, “because it is literally relentless and unremitting once that happens.”
Blair outlined to the Inquiry, which is currently examining relations between politicians and the press, that ties between the two would inevitably involve “closeness”. These would become unhealthy, he said, “when you were so acutely aware of the power exercised that you got into a situation where it became essential and crucial to have that interaction.”
He said the “imbalance of power” in the relationship was more problematic than the closeness.
However, he defended himself and his party as having “responded” to a phenomenon of media-political closeness than having created it, conceding later that they were “sometimes guilty of ascribing to them [the press] a power that they do not really have.”
His close ties with media mogul Rupert Murdoch are well-documented, with the Murdoch-owned Sun famously backing the Labour party ahead of its landslide win in the 1997 general election. Blair famously flew out to Hayman Island, Australia in 1995 to address Murdoch and News Corp executives, and in 2010 became godfather of Murdoch’s daughter.
When Lord Justice Leveson put it to Blair that the 1995 trip was a “charm offensive”, Blair defended it as a “deliberate” attempt to elicit the support of the Murdoch titles.
“My minimum objective was to stop them tearing us to pieces. My maximum objective was to try and get their support,” he said.
Quizzed about whether the prospect of needing to meet Murdoch in January 1997 had “angered” him, as suggested in Alastair Campbell’s diaries, Blair agreed this was his view and was how he would define the “unhealthy” part of the press-politicians relationship. Such meetings mattered, Blair said, “because the consequence of not getting it right was so severe.”
Yet he stressed he did not “feel under pressure from commercial interests from the Murdoch press or from anybody else”, and denied there were any express or implied deals with him or any other media group.
Blair added that policy was never changed during his time in government as a result of Murdoch, and that his decision not to launch an inquiry into cross-media ownership was not a means of appeasing the News Corp boss. Their relationship until he left office in 2007 was a “working” one, Blair emphasised.
The Inquiry continues tomorrow, with evidence from education secretary Michael Gove and home secretary Theresa May.
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