British leaders have no choice but to court powerful media barons such as Rupert Murdoch or risk savage press attacks which are “full on, full frontal, day in, day out”, former prime minister Tony Blair told an inquiry.
Blair calmly justified his ties to Murdoch with whom he developed a close friendship.
An unwillingness to take on the press in Britain has been cited by many as the reason a culture of illegality and phone hacking came about at Murdoch’s tabloids, but Blair told the inquiry into media standards he had had little choice.
Blair said he had made a strategic decision not to take on the power of the press during his time in office, despite calls for tougher media regulation following the death of Diana, princess of Wales in 1997.
He could either risk being torn apart by what he once described as the “feral beasts” of the media, or use them to get his policies implemented.
He never agreed a deal with Murdoch, he said, and only became godfather to his daughter after he left office. Calling the mogul three times in the days before the invasion of Iraq was also not particularly odd, he added.
“With any of these big media groups, you fall out with them, you watch out, because it is literally relentless and unremitting once that happens,” Blair said.
“My view is that that is what creates this situation in which these media people get a power in the system that is unhealthy.
“I took the strategic decision to manage this and not confront it but the power of it is indisputable.”
Blair — whose reputation for obsessive media management brought him so close to Murdoch that the tycoon would joke about their love making — said he became increasingly concerned about the unhealthy relationship between the media and politicians.
Blair is the most senior politician to date to appear before Leveson.
“If you fall out with the controlling element of the Daily Mail, you are then going to be subject to a huge and sustained attack,” said Blair.
“Managing these forces was a major part of what you had to do and was difficult,” he said.
Now a Middle East peace envoy, he identified The Sun and the right-wing Daily Mail, owned by Associated Newspapers, as Britain’s most powerful newspapers.
Describing what it feels like when a small section of the press decide to go after you, Blair said: “It’s full on, full frontal, day in, day out and that is not journalism in my view. That’s an abuse of power.”
He said it had been clear that Murdoch called the shots in his media empire, and not his newspaper editors.
The two later became so close that having stepped down as prime minister, Blair became a godfather to Murdoch’s daughter Grace.
Blair set the tone for his relationship with Britain’s press when, before his first election victory in 1997, he flew to Australia in 1995 to speak before a gathering of Murdoch’s executives who had previously used their British tabloids to vilify his Labour Party predecessors.
The decision, mocked by rivals as an act of homage to the all-powerful media boss, infuriated much of his left-of-centre party who saw the Australian-born tycoon as a right-winger who had helped to keep them out of power for years.
But Blair’s speech received a standing ovation and Murdoch indicated he could be willing to switch the allegiance of his newspapers to the Labour Party. “If our flirtation is ever consummated Tony then I suspect we will end up making love like porcupines, very, very carefully,” he told him.
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