No one landed a punch on Tony Blair at the Leveson inquiry in London’s High Court overnight, unless you count the guy who burst into the courtroom to accuse the former British prime minister of war crimes and stealing money from the Bank of Iraq.
Aside from that cream pie moment, the master of media spin came through virtually untouched, to the surprise of the pundits.
Blair was the man who took schmoozing the Murdochs to a high art, who jetted out to Hayman Island in 1995 to pitch for Rupert’s (and The Sun‘s) support at the coming election, and who made no secret of the need to get the Murdoch papers on side. Yet Robert Jay QC could not lay a glove on him.
So why not? One possible answer is that Blair was so good at handling Murdoch that he gave nothing away; another is that he was so good at handling Jay’s questions that he gave nothing away; a third might be that it is all too long ago for any smoking guns to be still lying around.
It has been much easier to nail the current British PM, David Cameron, because the Murdochs’ BSkyB bid is so recent, and because the inquiry has had access to a treasure trove of documents, like those gushing emails between News’ lobbyist Fred Michel and Adam Smith, special adviser to Jeremy Hunt, the man whose own website described him as a “cheerleader for Rupert Murdoch”.
There’s certainly no doubt that Blair’s relationship with the Murdochs was similarly close, to the extent that a former press officer at Number 10 Downing Street has described the media mogul as the 24th member of Blair’s cabinet.
Between 1995 and 2008, the ex-PM (or opposition leader as he was at the start) had 35 meetings with Rebekah Brooks — variously deputy editor of The Sun, editor of the News of the World and editor of The Sun — including at least three intimate dinners a deux. He also sent her birthday cards, had her to stay at his official country residence, Chequers (invited by his wife Cherie) and sent commiserations when was sacked last year as the phone hacking scandal erupted.
Blair also had regular lunches at James Murdoch’s home, had frequent meetings with Rupert, and took (or made) three phone calls from the media mogul in the run up to the Iraq War in 2003. Murdoch’s newspapers around the world all thumped the tub for the invasion of Iraq and trumpeted the threat of weapons of mass destruction.
After he left office, Blair became godfather to one of Rupert’s younger daughters, Grace. Yet, smooth-talking Tony is adamant the tycoon got almost nothing in return.
The accusation most often levelled against the former Labour leader is that he went easy on media regulation to please the Murdochs. In particular, Blair has been accused of not taking on cross-media legislation at all during his 10 years in government. He told Leveson last night that the battle would have taken up too much time and resources and stood in the way of other reforms.
It was put to him by Robert Jay QC that “the cross-media ownership policy was quietly dropped within six months of the Hayman Island trip in July 1995. Is that a fair assessment?” Not surprisingly, Blair said it was not.
It was also put to Blair that his culture secretary, Tess a Jowell, had sought assurances from him in 2002 that there had been no deal with Murdoch over media policy. “Were you surprised that she sought that assurance?”
“Not particularly,” said Blair, who went on to say there had “absolutely not” been a deal with Murdoch over the 2003 Communications Act (in which Blair has been accused by ex-Tory cabinet minister Lord Fowler of watering it down with a last-minute intervention from Downing Street).
Blair pointed out that the new law had set up the regulator, Ofcom, which the Murdochs have always opposed. He also said his government had greatly increased the BBC licence fee in the face of concerted Murdoch opposition, and had allowed the BBC to operate new digital channels. His government had also blocked BSkyB’s takeover of the famous Manchester United football club.
“We decided more stuff against Murdoch interests than in favour of it,” said Blair. “Did that mean they changed their support for me? No, it didn’t, in fact. Even though there were things they really didn’t like.”
More broadly, Blair maintained: “There was no deal on issues to do with the media with Rupert Murdoch or, indeed, anybody else, either express or implied. And to be fair, he never sought such a thing. Was I aware he had certain interests, and was I aware the media as a whole had a strong interest in us not legislating on the media? Absolutely.”
It was only after leaving the inquiry that Blair took a hit: his blacked out Range Rover was pelted with eggs by protesters. And, unlike with Robert Jay’s missiles, some of them hit their mark.