Blair defends relationship with Murdoch at Leveson

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives at the Leveson Inquiry. Credit: Press Association

Tony Blair has defended his relationship with Rupert Murdoch at the Leveson Inquiry, insisting he had never done a deal with the media mogul and claiming they only grew close after he quit Downing Street.

Tom Bradby reports on the appearance of Blair, the political performer of a generation, and the man who upstaged him.

The former Prime Minister, who is godfather to one of Mr Murdoch's children, told the Leveson Inquiry they had simply had a "working relationship" until after 2007. He said:

In his evidence, 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, in the hope of persuading the organisation against "tearing us to pieces".

Mr Blair's evidence was interrupted when a protester burst into the courtroom from a secure corridor and branded him a "war criminal". The man was arrested and the session continued.

After the hearing resumed, Mr Blair told the inquiry he had been in a powerful position, as prime minister, and Mr Murdoch had been in a powerful position as boss of a media empire.

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

About one third of his meetings in the early days were with the Murdoch empire but that proportion grew as he neared the end of his leadership as it was one of the few organisations that remained vaguely supportive, he said.

Mr Blair said The Sun and the Daily Mail were the most powerful newspapers and he eventually gave up bothering to meet the latter because it became so hostile.

He also explained the personal attacks on his wife and children by, in particular the Mail Group, were "unnecessary and wrong" during his time in office.

He told the inquiry that if powerful people in some sections of the media decide they are to go after a person and it is "full-on, full-frontal, day in, day out and that is not journalism in my view. That's an abuse of power."

Tony Blair was questioned on his relationship with Rupert Murdoch. Credit: Reuters

He said it was inevitable that politicians and journalists would have close working links but said newspapers had become an instrument of political power.

The Inquiry heard he made a strategic decision to manage the problem, not confront it.

Mr Blair said that in 2001 he had asked Mr Murdoch whether his newspapers would support Labour - and could not see anything wrong in doing that.

"I think I would have done that for any major group," said Mr Blair. "I cannot recall ever doing that specifically with other groups."

He added: "I don't think there is anything wrong with asking them whether they are going to support you.

"What is obviously different is if you are conditioning that in some way."

Rebekah Brooks. Credit: Reuters

Asked about his relationship with former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, Mr Blair was in qualified agreement with Ms Brooks's description of it.

She has described formal, informal and social meetings with him and called him "a constant presence in my life for many years".

Asked if he thought this was accurate, Mr Blair replied: "Yeah, if I take the whole of the relationship within government, but then I think I would say that about most of the senior political media people."

He confirmed Ms Brooks had had access to him whenever she wanted it but stressed that all Prime Ministers would almost certainly have seen "media managing" as a major part of the job.

Mr Blair said he had probably been closer to Ms Brooks too once he had left office, "when we were free from the constraints and it wasn't a relationship about the power relationship".

And he defended his decision to send her a message of support after the phone hacking scandal erupted last summer, saying he was "not a fair weather friend".

He told the hearing: "Certainly I said I was very sorry for what had happened to her...I've seen people go through this situation and I know what it's like."

A protester interrupts Blair's evidence, branding him a "war criminal".

Mr Blair denied New Labour had run a press operation that used bullying tactics and favouritism to manipulate journalists.

Pressed by leading counsel Robert Jay QC over why a "mythology" had built up around him over use of the "dark arts", he insisted he "hated" that type of politics.

"I have never authorised or said to someone go out and brief against this person or that person," he said.

"I hate that type of stuff. It's the lowest form of politics."

Mr Blair called for newspapers to separate out fact from comment, warning there was now a "violent and aggressive genre of attack".

He added: "It's a very pessimistic view of the world that says you can't make the news interesting unless you distort it."

He did not rule out supporting future proposals for a statutory system of press regulation.