By Nick Robinson
An “unhealthy” relationship has evolved between the press and politicians, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has told the Leveson Inquiry. But he told the media ethics hearing close interaction between politicians and newspapers was inevitable.
Mr Blair also said his family faced intense pressure from the press, which he called “unnecessary and wrong”. Earlier, a protester had to be ejected after getting into the court and calling Mr Blair a “war criminal”.
The inquiry is investigating press standards, and currently focusing on the relationship between the press and politicians. Mr Blair said it would be strange if senior media people and senior politicians did not have an interaction.
Mr Blair told the inquiry that at its best British journalism was the best in the world. But he said the word “unhealthy” rather than “cosy” was a better description of the relationship in some cases.
He told the inquiry: “It’s almost impossible now, even now, to dispute this issue to do with so-called ‘spin’.
“I can’t believe we are the first and only government that has ever wanted to put the best possible gloss on what we’re doing, that is a completely different thing to saying that you go out to say things that are deliberately untrue.”
Counsel to the inquiry Robert Jay QC asked Mr Blair why he had not taken on the media.
He responded that this would have provoked a major confrontation and he had not wanted that to detract from other policy goals. Mr Blair made a range of points in his evidence, including:
The Sun and the Daily Mail were the two most powerful newspapers. The Sun was important because it was prepared to shift its political allegiance
His government had decided more things against the interests of Rupert Murdoch than for them
It was important to get the Sun “on board” and former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks mattered because she was editor at the time. But the decision-maker was Mr Murdoch not Mrs Brooks
His friendship with Mr Murdoch was a working relationship until after he left office and he would never have become the godfather of Mr Murdoch’s daughter before then
He defended decision to send Rebekah Brooks a message of support after the phone hacking scandal erupted as he was “not a fair weather friend”
Mr Blair revealed his wife Cherie had taken or considered legal action about press coverage on more than 30 occasions.
He said a certain amount of comment was “perfectly legitimate” but some of the papers, particularly the Daily Mail, “took it too far and it turned into a personal vendetta”
He said some sections of the media “say ‘right, we are going to go for that person'”, adding: “That’s not journalism. In my view it’s an abuse of power”.
Mr Jay asked if the 2003 Communications Act had reflected some sort of “implied agreement” with the Murdochs.
Mr Blair replied: “No, absolutely not. For a start the thing thing we did, which was boost Ofcom, was the thing he absolutely disliked. Contrary to what’s often written about this.”
He said the strongest lobbying he remembered getting from media organisations during his time in office was from the BBC over the licence fee.