All eyes on Blair as he takes stand at Leveson

Martin Hickman on what the former PM should be asked about his relations with Murdoch empire

Martin Hickman
Tuesday 29 May 2012 10:43

Tony Blair today faces hours of questioning about his relationship with Rupert Murdoch and his newspapers at the Leveson Inquiry.

In a day starting at 10am and concluding at 4.30pm, with an hour for lunch, the former Prime Minister's evidence is scheduled to last six and a half hours. Mr Blair, who was Prime Minister for 10 years until 2007, will be asked about his views towards newspapers and their reform, but the greatest focus is expected to be on his personal dealings with Mr Murdoch.

Among the subjects that may be broached are:

Was there a deal?

In July 1995, a year after he became Leader of the Opposition, Mr Blair flew half way round the world to a News Corp conference at Hayman Island in Australia, which was widely seen as an act of a homage to Mr Murdoch.

Mr Blair defended the visit on the basis that Labour, then out of power for 16 years, needed media support. In his book Where Power Lies, however, Mr Blair's former aide Lance Prince went further, writing: "A deal had been done, although with nothing in writing. If Murdoch were left to pursue his business interests in peace he would give Labour a fair wind."

Did Labour dilute media ownership regulations for Mr Murdoch?

In 1996, Mr Blair's party sank a broadcasting Bill provision that would have prevented any national newspaper proprietor with more than 20 per cent of the market from buying into television.

The Labour MP Chris Mullin, a Murdoch critic, who had tabled an amendment applying a similar provision to owners of tabloid newspapers, recorded in his diaries: "Jack [Cunningham, Labour's shadow heritage secretary] asked me – gently, it has to be said – to withdraw. I declined."

When The Sun came out for Mr Blair the following year, the Chief Whip, Donald Dewar, asked Mr Mullin to stay silent; the following year, the Culture Secretary Chris Smith resisted attempts to increase regulation of BSkyB.

According to Mr Mullin, Mr Smith, having initially said that Sky's Luxembourg base ruled it out, added: "There is also prime ministerial interest in the matter, but I haven't told you that last part."

What did Mr Murdoch and Mr Blair discuss about the Iraq war?

All of News Corp's 175 newspapers – including The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times and News of the World – supported the Iraq warin 2003. Mr Blair had three conversations with Mr Murdoch in the run-up to the conflict. Earlier this month, Mr Blair's former spokesman, Alastair Campbell, told the Leveson Inquiry that he could not recall the content of the calls, but said the idea that Mr Blair could not have pursued his policy in Iraq without the backing of Mr Murdoch's papers was "complete nonsense".

Is Mr Blair still close friends with the Murdochs?

Mr Murdoch's third wife, Wendi Deng, let slip last year that Mr Blair was a close friend of theirs and was godfather to their daughter Grace.

Mr Blair's picture was omitted from a Hello! spread on the baptism in 2010. Mr Blair refused to confirm or deny he was godfather.

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