Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, has told an inquiry into media ethics how he decided to court Rupert Murdoch’s support rather than risk the wrath of the powerful press tycoon’s newspaper empire during his decade in office.
Monday’s session of the Leveson inquiry, which was set up following the phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper, was briefly interrupted by a protester who heckled Blair, calling him a “war criminal” for his role in the Iraq conflict.
Al Jazeera’s Barnaby Phillips reported from London, that Blair remained “calm and composed” throughout his testimony, even during the interruption.
Blair, who is godfather to one of Murdoch’s children, said he was not willing to risk offending the major media groups during his time in office.
He said the close relationship between politicians and the media was inevitable but that it became unhealthy when media groups tried to use their newspapers as instruments of political power.
“If you’re a political leader and you’ve got very powerful media groups and you fall out with one of those groups, the consequences is such that you… are effectively blocked from getting across your message,” he told the inquiry under oath.
“My view is that that is what creates this situation in which these media people get a power in the system that is unhealthy and which I felt, throughout my time, uncomfortable with. I took the strategic decision to manage this and not confront it but the power of it is indisputable.”
“And we can get on to whether that was right or wrong at a later stage, but that was the decision I took.”
The inquiry, named after judge Brian Leveson, its chair, began by putting a spotlight on phone hacking at the News of the World, a major Sunday paper that was shut down last year amid public outrage over the scandal.
Reporters for the News of the World listened to hundreds of people’s voicemails, including those of a murdered schoolgirl, triggering a scandal that led to the resignation of senior executives at the paper’s News International parent company.
The inquiry has broadened out to examine close ties between politicians, the press as well as the police.
Andy Coulson, a former communications director for David Cameron, the prime minister, has also appeared before the inquiry. Coulson edited the News of the World before quitting when the scandal unfolded.
Last month Murdoch told the inquiry he had never asked a prime minister for anything.
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.
The Sun, Murdoch’s best-selling daily tabloid which had previously been a staunch critic of Blair’s Labour party subsequently threw its support behind Blair and continued to back him through the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war until he stepped down in 2007.
The decision 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.