In a moment reminiscent of last year’s shaving-cream pie attack on Rupert Murdoch at a Parliamentary committee hearing, an unwelcome guest infiltrated the Leveson Inquiry into UK media ethics today. This time, it was former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair testifying and the attack was a verbal one. An antiwar protester burst in shouting, “The man is a war criminal!” before being forcibly removed. Blair, who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and who told the inquiry there was nothing odd about speaking with Murdoch three times before the war, was unruffled.
Earlier in the day, Blair said that as a politician, running afoul of a media group “means you are then effectively blocked from getting your message across.” Blair gave evidence as to his relationship with Rupert Murdoch and the relationship of politicians and the media in general. He avidly courted the News Corp chief from his early days as head of the Labour Party. After Blair paid a visit to Australia in 1995 in what he said was a “very deliberate and very strategic” move to curry favor, Murdoch famously said, “I suspect we’ll end up making love like two porcupines – very carefully.” Murdoch’s Sun newspaper backed Blair in all of his runs at office.
Blair told the inquiry today that having close ties to the media is “essential and crucial.” But, he said he never felt under pressure with relation to commercial interests from the Murdochs or anyone else. Rather any pressure he felt was political. “With any of these big groups, you fall out with them and you watch out… It’s very important not to see this simply about the Murdoch media.”
Although Blair is close to Murdoch, he also contended that the idea of “coziness” while he was in office is inappropriate. “These relationships matter, you’re bound to have close interaction. But it’s not the closeness that’s the problem, it’s the imabalance that comes into it… You know if you are pursuing a course you believe in and they don’t belive in it or you are in a big fight. That’s something you have to take into account before you decide to go in a particular direction. It’s hard to distinguish what is wrong from what is inevitable,” Blair said.
Blair also maintained that during his tenure, the government made more policy changes that went against Murdoch interests rather than for. He explained he chose not to pursue a review of cross-media ownership because he had other things to focus on early in his time at Number 10 Downing Street.
Speaking to the issue of press reform, Blair said, “In the end… what I think is wrong is when a section of the media… they will go after you… and that is not journalism. That’s an abuse of power. And it’s not necessary.”