Leveson Inquiry: Tony Blair defends Murdoch friendship

Tony Blair: 'It was a relationship about power'

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has defended his friendship with Rupert Murdoch, saying it was "a working relationship" until he left office.

Mr Blair told the Leveson Inquiry he had not changed any policies to please the newspapers owned by Murdoch.

He added he would not have become godfather to one of Murdoch's children based on their relationship in office.

Earlier, a protester had to be ejected after getting into the court and calling Mr Blair a "war criminal".

The inquiry is investigating press standards, and currently focusing on the relationship between the press and politicians.

"It was a relationship about power," said Mr Blair. "I find these relationships are not personal; they are working [relationships], to me."

He added: "Despite all this stuff about me being godfather to one of his children. I would not have been godfather to one of his children on the basis of my relationship in office.

"After I left office I got to know him. Now it's different. It's not the same."

Close interaction

Mr Blair admitted he had "flown half way round the world" to Hayman Island, Australia, to meet Mr Murdoch and News Corporation executives when he was Labour leader in 1995.

He said he wanted to persuade the organisation against "tearing us to pieces".

Mr Blair said a close relationship was inevitable but also involved a "certain level of tension".

"I didn't use texts or emails at the time," the once technophobic former prime minister acknowledged.

"It's something for which I'm profoundly grateful."

So he should be. The former Labour leader has been spared the embarrassment that David "LOL" Cameron has had to suffer.

And in the absence of any emails or other documentary evidence, the Leveson lawyers had little to go on when exploring whether or not the three-time election winner had done a deal with Rupert Murdoch.

Mr Blair was keen to place the Daily Mail in the dock, rather than the News International titles, accusing Paul Dacre's paper of a "sort of personal vendetta" against his wife.

The closest he came to an admission of failure was over his decision to manage rather than confront media excesses when in power.

But, Mr Blair argued, taking on newspapers would have resulted in a long protracted battle.

Post Leveson, will this be a task he has bequeathed to David Cameron?

"If you look back over time there's nothing wrong and indeed it would, it would be strange frankly if senior people in the media and senior politicians didn't have that close interaction," he said.

The former PM said the views of the press on issues ranging from the trade unions to Europe had not affected his approach.

"I don't know a policy that we changed as a result of Rupert Murdoch," he said.

In his written statement, Mr Blair says his government "more often than not" rejected the views expressed by the Murdoch media, and he provided six examples of when the Labour government had shown such robustness.

These included preventing BSkyB's takeover of Manchester United and granting new channels to the BBC.

In fact the strongest lobbying he had received from a media organisation during his time in office was from the BBC over the licence fee, he told the hearing.

Mr Blair told the inquiry that, at its best, British journalism was the best in the world.

But he said the word "unhealthy" rather than "cosy" was a better description of the relationship in some cases between journalists and those in power.

Cherie action

Mr Blair made a range of points in his evidence, including:

  • He had not taken on the media as it would have provoked a major confrontation and he had not wanted that to detract from other policy goals.
  • The Sun and the Daily Mail were the two most powerful newspapers. The Sun was important because it was prepared to shift its political allegiance
  • It was important to get the Sun "on board" and former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks mattered because she was editor at the time. But the decision-maker was Mr Murdoch not Mrs Brooks
  • He defended his decision to send Rebekah Brooks a message of support after the phone hacking scandal erupted as he was "not a fair-weather friend"
  • Mr Blair revealed his wife Cherie had taken or considered legal action about press coverage on more than 30 occasions.
  • He said a certain amount of comment was "perfectly legitimate" but some of the papers, particularly the Daily Mail, "took it too far and it turned into a personal vendetta" He said some sections of the media "say 'right, we are going to go for that person'", adding: "That's not journalism. In my view it's an abuse of power".

Proceedings were interrupted for around 20 seconds during Monday morning's session when the protester, who told reporters his name was David Lawley-Wakelin from the Alternative Iraq Enquiry, burst in.

Start Quote

This, remember, may feel at times like a form of Truth and Reconciliation Commission but it is not”

End Quote

Lord Justice Leveson apologised to Mr Blair and questioned how the man was able to enter the court through what should have been a secure corridor. The man was removed and an investigation was immediately ordered.

Mr Blair said on the record that there was no truth in the allegation, made by the protester, that he had been "paid off" by the US banking giant JP Morgan for the Iraq War.

The man has been released without charge after being arrested on suspicion of a breach of the peace.

At the close of Monday's session, Lord Justice Leveson gave a strong indication of the measures he believed were needed to remedy the problems with the press following the phone-hacking scandal.

"Whatever comes out of this must be independent of government, independent of the state, independent of parliament but independent of the press," he said.

Also being considered are measures to improve systems of redress for the public and a mechanism for intervening before damaging stories are published.

The former prime minister is the first of several senior politicians due to appear at the inquiry this week, including Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Thursday.

He is under pressure over the way he handled News Corp's attempted takeover of BSkyB.

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