Tony Blair earned his Teflon tag today. Assured and articulate, Labour’s longest-serving prime minister put in a silken performance at Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice. Even when a protester stormed into the courtroom and shouted “war criminal” within feet of his perma-tanned face, Mr Blair the world statesman, maintained his composure, airily dismissing the intrusion with a flick of his left hand.
In coming to the Leveson Inquiry, Mr Blair appeared to have two missions: a) to agree that he felt the press barons had become too powerful and required reform and b) to demonstrate that he himself had never behaved improperly in wooing them.
The chief topic was his relationship with Rupert Murdoch. Had Mr Blair done a deal with News Corp’s chief executive in 1995 two years before his general election landslide? Had he granted Mr Murdoch’s News International favours in return for the wholehearted support of its papers at three general elections? Was he a close friend of the octogenarian proprietor?
On everything, Mr Blair, his hands constantly moving and emphatic, delivered what appeared to be off-the-cuff answers which were, on closer inspection, both carefully-worded and often diversionary. The deal? "There was no deal on issues to do with the media... and to be fair he never sought such a thing,” he replied, carefully limiting any accusation to “media issues” rather than the general understanding they are said to have reached, that New Labour would be good for Mr Murdoch’s business in return for his papers giving Labour a “fair wind”.
No, Mr Blair had not changed to policy for Mr Murdoch; he did what he thought was right, though he may have carefully presented his messages to The Sun on issues such as Europe (He had entered government a “pro-European” and he left office still a “pro-European”, he stressed)
Asked whether he was a close friend of the tycoon, he was presented with a rather fact which limited his wriggle-room: Mr Murdoch’s wife Wendi Deng had last year embarrassingly disclosed that the former Labour leader was godfather to their daughter. Evasively, Mr Blair replied that the relationship with Mr Murdoch had changed since he had left office; in office the relationship had been a “working relationship” but afterwards it had changed. (He couldn’t bring himself to confirm that he was a close friend of Mr Murdoch – but nor, given the evidence, could he deny it.)
He seemed to be keen to attack the Daily Mail, and to limit criticism of Mr Murdoch.
The “appalling” things which had happened in Mr Murdoch’s business – which Mr Blair did not name, but which commentators might assume were widespread criminality including phone hacking, computer hacking, corruption of police, and allegedly conspiring to pervert the course of justice – were just “one aspect” of his otherwise laudable work in the UK.
By lunchtime, Mr Blair had achieved everything he had set out to do – not incriminate himself. Unusually, Robert Jay, QC, did not save his best for last and the session ended with a cosy chat between Lord Leveson and Mr Blair about press reform. Once again, the master escapologist had slipped out of trouble.
Martin Hickman is a reporter for The Independent and co-author of 'Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain'