Former Prime Minister Tony Blair told Britain’s media-ethics inquiry that he sought to manage crucial relationships with the media while in office to avoid a “major confrontation.”
The probe, triggered by widespread phone hacking at News Corp.’s News of the World tabloid, is hearing testimony about lawmakers’ ties to the company after victims said an often cozy relationship helped cover up the scandal for years.
“I decided as a political leader, as a strategic decision, that I was going to manage that and not confront it,” Blair said of his media links in London today. “The relationships moved from being sensible to crucial in a way that’s not healthy.”
The inquiry, set up by Prime Minister David Cameron last year, is hearing from members of the former ruling Labour Party as well as his own Conservatives about their ties to News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. The phone-hacking scandal led New York- based News Corp. to shut its News of the World tabloid last year and abandon its bid for British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was appointed to review the BSkyB takeover, is fighting for his job after evidence in the inquiry suggested he may have unfairly favored the deal and was too partial to News Corp. Hunt, one of whose aides resigned last month, is scheduled to testify May 31.
Cherie Blair Hacking Suit
Blair’s wife Cherie sued News Corp.’s U.K. unit, News International, in February, joining dozens of other public figures who say they have police evidence showing Murdoch’s News of the World intercepted their mobile-phone voice mail. Blair’s former press chief, Alastair Campbell, and former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott also sued.
Campbell testified at the inquiry earlier this month. He said Blair felt he had to deal with a “right-wing” Murdoch to get his message delivered to the public. He also said Murdoch was one of Blair’s few supporters when he decided to go to war in Iraq and that the men spoke about it on the phone three times in the days leading up to the invasion.
Blair said today his relationship with Murdoch is very different than when he was in office and said the ties at the time were a “working relationship,” rather than cozy.
“It’s not the closeness that’s the problem,” Blair said. “It’s the imbalance, because you know that at a certain point” if you are pursuing “a course you believe in and they don’t believe in it, or they don’t believe in you, then you are going to be in a big fight.”
Blair courted Murdoch immediately after he became leader of the Labour Party in 1994. The next year, after he traveled to Australia to address News Corp. executives, Murdoch joked that “I suspect we will end up making love like two porcupines -- very carefully.”
“It’s not that I was afraid of taking them on,” Blair said today. “But if I did -- I knew I had to be very, very clear about this -- if you take this on do not think for a single second that you’re not going to be in a long, protracted battle that will shove everything else aside whilst it’s going on.”
Murdoch’s Sun tabloid, the best-selling daily title in Britain, switched from the Conservatives to endorse Blair in the 1997 election, and Murdoch was an early visitor to Blair after his victory. It switched back to the Conservatives in 2009, after Blair had left office.
“The Sun, partly because it is prepared to shift, makes it all the more important,” Blair told the inquiry.
Blair also complained about attacks made on him, his family and associates “day in, day out,” by the Daily Mail newspaper and said the result of falling out with any large media company is “relentless and unremitting” news coverage.
In 2007, as he prepared to leave office, Blair gave a speech attacking the media for focusing on comment over news reporting, and referring to reporters as “feral beasts.”
Murdoch testified at the inquiry last month. He said he never asked Blair or any other prime minister for a favor while they were in office. Murdoch described private meetings with other prime ministers, including tea with Cameron’s at Downing Street in London after the 2010 election. Cameron thanked him for the support of his newspapers, he said.
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