Has the Leveson inquiry jumped the shark yet? I don’t have to explain “jump the shark”, do I? This endless inquiry is now like Brigadoon, emerging from the mist every fortnight or so, with someone with something to say about the meeja. The big stories were all heard at the culture, media, and sport committee, with tales of hacking, police pay-offs and sundry depredation.
The Leveson inquiry is after something else — an overall and very detailed picture, like one of those grand Victorian tableaux of arriving at the railway station, etc. Bearded counsel Robert Jay QC starts on one line of questioning, appears to get some sort of answer he wants, but which doesn’t amount to a smoking pistol, and moves on. Everyone watching grinds their teeth, and wants A Few Good Men moment: “I ordered the code red! I ordered the code red!”
There was no such moment.
Blair, tanned and fit, but having lost his strange US accent, never faltered. Nor was there any reason he should have. He was ostensibly being asked to describe politics as normal, the process by which the leader of a political party pays obeisance to Murdoch — and, in the UK to several other media tycoons — in the pursuit of victory.
There were embarrassing moments for Blair. He had to go through the time in 1995 when he schlepped to Hayman Island to attend the annual News Corp back-slapping whatever, and assure Murdoch’s minions — or defendants 1-30 as they are now known — that he was busy curbing the Labour Party’s vestigial desire to change anything. (And how weird it was hearing that place mentioned. Family holiday there in 1978, was it? We stayed in cabins, I drank my own weight in sarsaparilla and read the entire Stainless Steel Rat series. Happy days.)
He argued a pretty consistent line on that — to win, Murdoch had to be appeased, and once won, there was no point in making the curbing of media power into a centrepiece of the first Labour government in 20 years. He simply had to work with them. Other media organisations — such as Associated Newspapers, publishers of the foam-flecked Daily Mail — were so hostile that they weren’t even worth talking to. Did Blair speak to Rupert Murdoch three times in the 10 days before the start of the Iraq war? He did.
So far so realpolitik. Blair wanted to win, he said, to enact Labour’s agenda: NHS waiting lists, minimum wage, better schools, etc. He never lobbied Murdoch. They just spoke constantly, it would seem. Blair repeatedly quoted Paul Keating on Murdoch — to the effect that Murdoch backs winners for business purposes. “That’s not something I now agree with,” he said. Fair enough, ‘cos it’s always been bullshit. Murdoch will desert the Right, but only when he has bullied centre-left parties into abandoning even the most vestigial progressive social program.
Which is really the nub of the issue. Because while it seems clear New Labour never tried to give News the same naked advantage as the Tories have — with their attempt to shoe-horn News into a majority ownership of BSkyB –the crucial issue is whether New Labour under Blair trimmed a progressive social program when it didnt need to. God knows UK Labour under Kinnock and then John Smith was hardly the Paris Commune during the Red Days, but there was something more there than the minimal program that Blair and his phalange ushered in following the early death of John Smith in 1994. But by 1996-97, the Tories were utterly exhausted and discredited. Labour’s 160-plus seat victory suggests they could have won a comfortable majority without Blair’s shit-eating-grin centre-right politics.
The Blairites’ treatment of the situation in 1994-5 was a form of political shock doctrine: the 1992 result had demoralised everyone beyond description, the death of Smith had ushered in a leadership struggle, and the desperate desire to make victory utterly certain persuaded enough of the party to go with Blair — and also persuaded Gordon Brown that he could not win a leadership contest. Mr Tony was happy to dilate on how much he agreed with many of the reforms created by Margaret Thatcher; curbs on unions, etc.
At such times he glowed with his full narcissus halo, a satanic presence, the locus of hundreds of thousands of excess deaths, the man who tried to kill Iraq and tried to save Gaddafi. So it was inevitable that part-way through his evidence, someone would burst in and denounce him as a war criminal. David Lawley-Wakelin, tall, in a white shirt like a shroud, managed to get into the hearing with barely any preparation. He just went in the general entrance, down two floors and found the entrance used by Lord Leveson himself. Interestingly, his profession is as first assistant director — the one person on a film set who has to be totally, ceaselessly on the ball. He used his skills well. Had he been willing to do 25 in prison, for the rest of your life you’d remember where you were when it was late morning in the UK today.
Blair was unflustered — denying Wakelin’s claims that he had taken millions from JP Morgan after the war. Well maybe he hadn’t — just a directorship, and we’ll never know how much that’s worth. Wakelin’s parting shot — “you’re a war criminal!’ — hung in the air for a long time, with everyone not knowing where to look. The more solicitous Leveson was to his suddenly defensive witness: “Mr Blair, you’re not required to say anything.” “No, but I want to …”
It was a zen moment that made everything suddenly visible. Blair claimed he was glad the inquiry was on, as it could finally “drain the poison from the culture which … I mean, phewwnughhhghack gaaak gaak gaak”. Spending his time in Israel has certainly given him chutzpah. Had he shut up after Wakelin came in he would have won the day. Instead, he looked mewling and puking. His beefy bodyguards are useless hoons, his van was egged as he left. Leveson left him untouched, Wakelin didn’t.
Mr Tony has jumped the shark and kept on going.