The ghostly visage of Tony Blair has hovered over Britain’s tabloid-corruption inquiry for more than a year -- after all, the Labour Prime Minister’s 10 years in office began after a 1995 trip to Australia to court media magnate Rupert Murdoch, and ended with Mr. Blair becoming a godfather to Mr. Murdoch’s daughter.
So when Mr. Blair took the stand at the Leveson Inquiry on Monday morning, the questions were bound to be awkward. And, in characteristic fashion, he owned up to many of the most serious accusations.
His approach, to the surprise of few, was to own up to all but the worst of it: Yes, Mr. Blair acknowledged, there had been a far too cozy relationship between his government and the Murdoch media empire, as many of his top aides have already revealed in memoirs.
But, he said, the decade-long backing of the Murdoch papers, including the Times of London and the Sun, was both necessary in order for him to win majority governments, but also important for avoiding a partisan showdown that would have pitted his left-wing party against 10 million angry tabloid readers.
The tabloid-reader vote, Mr. Blair conceded, was crucial to his Labour victories, and he had to go through Mr. Murdoch to get that vote. “Part of this for me with the Murdoch media group,” he said, “was me using them as a conduit to that vote.”
Mr. Blair’s aides, including Geoff Mulgan, Alastair Campbell and Chris Mullin, have described the political triangulation Mr. Blair used to get tabloid readers to support him: He would deliver conservative-sounding messages on crime, immigration and unions in order to get supportive tabloid headlines, and use that to win support for more progressive legislation on schools, hospitals and Europe.
“Was it important to get the Sun on board?” he asked at one point. “Absolutely. They do represent a certain strain of support Labour might have had, but didn’t, during the 1980s and early 1990s,” when the Conservatives won all the elections.
But he said he was guilty of overestimating the power of the tabloids, and acknowledged that he had sometimes bent too far to deliver them the headlines they wanted: “We were sometimes guilty of ascribing to them a power that they ultimately don't really have and actually have less today than I think back then.”
And, crucially, he argued that there was never any quid pro quo: At no point, he claimed, did he promise Mr. Murdoch anything in exchange for support, such as passage of laws granting greater ownership shares of his TV networks or self-regulatory policies for media ethics in the wake of Princess Diana’s death.
“No, I believed in all these things,” he said of his more tabloid-friendly policies. “They were the core of New Labour.”
Indeed, he said, Mr. Murdoch “didn’t lobby me on media stuff… the bulk of the conversation was about politics, and Europe was a large part of that.”
Not only were the tabloids necessary to get less-than-leftist voters on side to give his party victories, he said, but he wanted to avoid time-consuming policy battles with them. “It would have been a huge battle,” with the tabloids, he said, “with no chance of winning.”
He also insisted that he did not use the tabloids to launch covert attacks on his political rivals -- something that his former finance minister and prime ministerial successor Gordon Brown has been accused of doing. “'I hate that type of politics,” he said, “and did not engage in it.”
Mr. Blair was given a chance to express more intimate feelings about the media when a protester burst into the room directly behind inquiry chairman Lord Leveson, seized the microphone, declared the former prime minister a “war criminal” and described an elaborate conspiracy theory involving payments from banks.
While the commission staff roared with outrage and wrestled with the protester, Mr. Blair merely raised an eyebrow, said a few words to deny the protester’s conspiracy theory, and used it as a learning moment: “My experience with this,” he said, “is that you can have a thousand people in the room, and the minute someone shouts something or throws something, then that’s the only thing that becomes the story.”
He was frank about his close friendships with Mr. Murdoch’s circle, including Sun editor Rebekah Brooks, who has been arrested on multiple charges of conspiracy to pervert justice in relation to allegations that there was a cover-up of newspaper payoffs to police and politicians.
He said he remained friends with her, and contacted her with his condolences after the arrests: “I’m somebody who doesn’t believe in being a fairweather friend, and obviously I said I was very sorry for her.”