2012-05-28 12:41:35

Blair Says He Feared Provoking Press

Tony Blair said on Monday he decided to court the media in Britain rather than risk the wrath of powerful media tycoons during his decade as prime minister.

Blair, the most powerful British prime minister since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, said that even he was not willing to risk offending the major media groups.

"If you're a political leader and you've got very powerful media groups and you fall out with one of those groups, the consequences is such that you... are effectively blocked from getting across your message," Blair told the inquiry under oath at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

"I'm being open about the fact that frankly I decided as a political leader, and this was a strategic decision, that I was going to manage that and not confront it. And we can get on to whether that was right or wrong at a later stage, but that was the decision I took," he said.

Blair's relationship with the press, and Rupert Murdoch in particular, came under scrutiny at the inquiry which has broadened out to examine the close ties between politicians, the press and police after initially looking at a phone hacking scandal at a mass-selling tabloid.

Blair said the close relationship between politicians and the media was inevitable but that it became unhealthy when media groups tried to use their newspapers as instruments of political power.

The inquiry has so far focused on the conduct of the media and the close ties between Murdoch's empire and serving ministers, helping the opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband consolidate his position with attacks on the current British Prime Minister David Cameron.

But the grilling of Blair, who was renowned for trying to control the media agenda by "spinning" the news to gain the most favorable coverage, could undermine Miliband's attempt to portray Labour under his leadership as a party above courting media tycoons.


While Blair is no longer active in British politics, the inquiry may still prove uncomfortable as it examines issues such as his decision, after stepping down as prime minister, to become a godfather to Murdoch's daughter Grace at a ceremony on the banks of the river Jordan.

"Blair led the way in having no shame about courting Murdoch," said Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at City university.

"He set the style and the standard and if you regard Cameron as the 'heir to Blair' then it's not exactly surprising that he followed suit."

Murdoch told the inquiry last month that he had never asked a prime minister for anything.

Blair set the tone for his relationship with Britain's press when, before his first election victory in 1997, he flew to Australia in 1995 to speak before a gathering of Murdoch's executives who had previously used their British tabloids to vilify his Labour Party predecessors.

The decision infuriated much of his left-of-centre party who saw the Australian-born tycoon as a right-winger who had helped to keep them out of power for years.

"People would be horrified," Blair said later in his autobiography. "On the other hand ... not to go was to say carry on and do your worst, and we knew their worst was very bad indeed."

"The country's most powerful newspaper proprietor, whose publications have hitherto been rancorous in their opposition to the Labour Party, invites us into the lion's den. You go, don't you?"

Blair's speech to Murdoch executives received a standing ovation and Murdoch indicated for the first time that he could be willing to switch the allegiance of his newspapers to the Labour Party.

"If our flirtation is ever consummated Tony then I suspect we will end up making love like porcupines, very, very carefully," he told him.

With the backing of Murdoch's top-selling Sun tabloid, Blair swept to power in 1997 and again in 2001 and 2005. But with an ever increasing reputation for public relations "spin", he started to face questions over his sincerity.

Much of that came to a head when Blair and then U.S. President George W. Bush agreed to invade Iraq, going against the public opinion in Britain.

Blair is likely to be asked why he spoke to Murdoch three times in the days leading up to the Iraq war and whether this had any impact on the fact that all Murdoch's papers supported the unpopular invasion. He was not asked about his ties to Rupert Murdoch in early questioning on Monday.

Rupert Murdoch


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