No pact with Rupert Murdoch, says Tony Blair

 

Tony Blair denied today doing any deals with Rupert Murdoch in return for the support of his newspapers.

The former prime minister defended his relationship with Mr Murdoch at the Leveson Inquiry claiming they only became close friends once he left Downing Street.

Mr Blair, who became godfather to Mr Murdoch's daughter Grace in 2010, insisted the media tycoon never "lobbied him for special favours".

His evidence was interrupted by a protester who burst into courtroom 73 from a secure corridor and accused Mr Blair of being a "war criminal". The former Labour leader remained composed as the man was led off by security guards and the session continued.

During his decade in office Mr Blair said he simply had a "working relationship" with Mr Murdoch.

Mr Blair said: "I know Rupert Murdoch and his family far better today than I did when I was Prime Minister.

"I would never have become godfather to their child on the basis of my relationship in Government where meetings with Rupert Murdoch tended to be very much politics oriented and I knew the rest of the family only a little at that time."

He added: "It was a relationship about power. I find these relationships are not personal, they are working, to me."

Mr Blair said he had probably been closer to Ms Brooks too once he had left office, "when we were free from the constraints and it wasn't a relationship about the power relationship".

And he defended his decision to send her a message of support after the phone hacking scandal erupted last summer, saying he was "not a fair weather friend".

He told the hearing: "Certainly I said I was very sorry for what had happened to her...I've seen people go through this situation and I know what it's like."

Mr Blair insisted he had never agreed to any pact with any media organisation. "There was no deal on issues to do with the media with Rupert Murdoch, or indeed, anybody else, either expressed or implied and to be fair, he never sought such a thing."

He added: "When it came to the specific issue in relation to the Murdoch media group, we more often decided against them than in favour."

"Rupert Murdoch never lobbied me for special favours. What he did do was argue strongly with me about politics. He has decided views. On some issues, I agreed and on some I disagree."

He never changed his policies to please the Murdoch press, he insisted, and had stuck to what he believed in on issues ranging from the trade unions to Europe. "I don't know a policy that we changed as a result of Rupert Murdoch," he said.

Mr Blair told the inquiry once the press turned against him it was "full frontal, day in, day out, basically a lifetime commitment."

"Rupert Murdoch never lobbied me for special favours. What he did do was argue strongly with me about politics. He has decided views. On some issues, I agreed and on some I disagree."

He told how wife Cherie was subjected to a "personal vendetta", claiming while some comment was "legitimate" at times the criticism was taken "too far".

The Leveson Inquiry heard how it was "unhealthy" that certain parts of the media used newspapers as "instruments of political power".

But he admitted that Labour had made a strategic decision not to tackle the problem. "I'm just being open about that and open about the fact that, frankly, I decided as a political leader that I was going to manage that and not confront it."

After almost two decades in the political wilderness with Labour leaders subjected to ridicule in the popular press Mr Blair told the Inquiry he was determined to foster better relations with the media.

He admitted he had "flown half way round the world" to Hayman Island, Australia, to meet Mr Murdoch and News Corporation executives when he was Labour leader in 1995, in the hope of persuading the organisation against "tearing us to pieces".

Mr Blair said that in 2001 he had asked Mr Murdoch whether his newspapers would support Labour - and could not see anything wrong in doing that.

"I think I would have done that for any major group," said Mr Blair. "I cannot recall ever doing that specifically with other groups."

He added: "I don't think there is anything wrong with asking them whether they are going to support you.

"What is obviously different is if you are conditioning that in some way."

He said phone hacking was "evidently going on" while he was in office.

He added: "The allegation by the Mail that I tried to pressure Tom Watson to end his campaign against News International is completely and totally untrue."

Mr Blair denied New Labour had run a press operation that used bullying tactics and favouritism to manipulate journalists.

Pressed by leading counsel Robert Jay QC over why a "mythology" had built up around him over use of the "dark arts", he insisted he "hated" that type of politics.

"I have never authorised or said to someone go out and brief against this person or that person," he said.

"I hate that type of stuff. It's the lowest form of politics."

Mr Blair called for newspapers to separate out fact from comment, warning there was now a "violent and aggressive genre of attack".

He added: "It's a very pessimistic view of the world that says you can't make the news interesting unless you distort it."

He did not rule out supporting future proposals for a statutory system of press regulation.

PA

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