I don't know what the purveyors of the thesis that Tony Blair was too close to Rupert Murdoch expected yesterday, but they didn't get it. There was no point in alleging that Blair did a deal to allow Murdoch greater dominion over the British media unless you could show that Murdoch benefited from it. Which he did not. Murdoch owned four newspapers with about one third of the British market in 1997, and controlled Sky television. By the end of Blair's time as Prime Minister, or indeed of Gordon Brown's, Murdoch owned four newspapers with about one third of the national market, and controlled Sky television.
What had changed in the intervening period was that the newspapers became less influential, with the rise of the internet and The Times going behind a paywall in 2010, and Sky became more important. Yet Sky News is still bound by the rules on impartiality that apply to all other television channels and no one seriously suggests that it is anything like Fox TV, Murdoch's American channel with a conservative editorial stance. Although Alastair Campbell succeeded in provoking Adam Boulton into losing his temper after the 2010 election, the point about that exchange was that Campbell was wrong to allege bias and Boulton was right to defend Sky News's editorial independence.
So Robert Jay, the Leveson Inquiry's counsel, didn't ask the "cosy deal" question. And before he didn't ask it, Blair took control of the interrogation by saying that his government more often decided against Murdoch's interests than in favour of them. Which is also true. Blair gave trade unions the legal right to recognition, which Murdoch did not want. Stephen Byers, as Trade and Industry Secretary, refused to allow Murdoch to buy Manchester United. On the other hand, the media ownership rules were relaxed in 2002 to allow Murdoch to buy Channel 5. Which he didn't do. The main anti-competitive practice in which Murdoch engaged, as I remember well as a leaderwriter for this newspaper around the turn of the century, was to price The Times at a deep discount to gain market share. This was less at the expense of The Independent than of other newspapers, as it turned out, but we were worried about it, until Murdoch suddenly decided that he had lost enough money and gained enough in circulation.
When it came to the anti-war conspiracy theory about the telephone calls between Blair and Murdoch on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Jay made no more progress than the double-barrelled protester who invaded the court room to shout insults of ignorance. Indeed, Jay did more to confound the conspiracy theory than Blair did. Jay pointed out that all Murdoch's newspapers around the world had come out in favour of military action before the telephone calls, so it was not as if Blair had to persuade Murdoch of the case. And if anyone wanted to ask Blair if his resolve for war had to be stiffened by Murdoch at the last moment, it wasn't going to be Jay.
Jay had tried to set the tone early on by talking about being "malleable with the truth", although it was not clear of whom he was talking. But Blair had no trouble with that. "I know what you are up to," he said, although not in those words. "You mean spin."
We knew that Blair would do a good job of explaining the blindingly obvious, which is that political leaders try to secure a fair hearing for their views with powerful people in the media. We knew, too, that he would draw attention to the historical context. And he did, saying gently "I'd be surprised" if any previous government did not try to put the best gloss on its policies. He managed in the first 10 minutes to remind us that Labour had lost four times – and been savaged by the Murdoch press – before he came along; and that the Labour government turned round schools, hospitals and crime. He also deflected some of the criticisms of the Murdoch press by rehearsing his "feral beast" thesis against the Daily Mail. (Still no hint of an apology, though, for levelling the accusation first against The Independent just before stepping down as Prime Minister.)
But there were no revelations, apart from his pronunciation of "Murdoch" with a Scottish ch, and anyone who was expecting new news should have known better. He was asked about a Daily Mail editorial – "The deluded world of Mr Blair" – which alleged that the press, far from being savage, had slobbered over him like a puppy. He said that it was not a picture that he recognised, and observed: "I'm the one with self-delusion, am I?"
Everyone will answer that question after Blair gave his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry in the same way that they would have answered it before. No wonder Robert Jay QC shut up shop 90 minutes early with the equivalent of "No further questions, your honour".
John Rentoul is a biographer of Tony Blair and chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday
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