Blair & Murdoch - FOI v Campbell
In the few days leading up to the start of the Iraq War, Tony Blair had three phone conversations with Rupert Murdoch. One of these was 'official' and minuted by civil servants. The other two must have been either 'personal' or 'party political' or not significant enough to be minuted, if the Cabinet Office is to be believed. What they talked about at this time of extreme international tension we do not know.
We are now aware of these calls because this information has been released by the Cabinet Office to the LibDem peer Lord Avebury, who had put in a freedom of information request for the dates of meetings or calls between Blair and Murdoch.
Previously the Cabinet Office had only released the date of the one 'official' call, in line with the decision of the Information Commissioner.
Avebury was in the process of appealing this to the Information Tribunal, when his legal team were staggered to be told by government solicitors that the Cabinet Office would give in and disclose the information.
Funnily enough, this capitulation was communicated to them on the day after Gordon Brown became prime minister. So did revealing the dates when Blair talked to Murdoch figure prominently on day 1 of his grid for his first 100 days as PM?
It is another interesting example of the government suddenly abandoning a case rather than fight it at the Information Tribunal, which has annoyed some civil servants with decisions in favour of openness. As I noted, this also happened in the case of the now famous official advice on pensions and dividend tax relief before the 1997 budget.
Could this become a trend? One consequence is that although this sets symbolic precedents in practice, they do not have the legal force of a Tribunal judgment.
Still, the government will find it harder in future to run the arguments they initially put forward in this case, 'that information as to the timing of discussions might allow the content of discussions to be inferred and, in addition, that disclosure might increase the pressure on the Prime Minister’s diary by increasing the expectation that he would hold discussions with others.'
The Cabinet Office have now given Avebury the dates of six contacts between Blair and Murdoch between September 2002 and April 2005. But a puzzle remains. For some reason the Cabinet Office hasn't told Avebury about the meeting between Blair and Murdoch in August 2003.
Blair felt it was a 'good meeting', and it contributed to the fact he had an enjoyable summer holiday. This is revealed in another document recently disclosed from the centre of government - Alastair Campbell's diaries.