Former British prime minister Tony Blair has said that he could not stand up to Britain’s media tycoons while in power, telling an official media ethics inquiry that doing so could have dragged his administration into a political quagmire.
Blair’s testimony on Monday, briefly interrupted by a heckler who burst into the courtroom to call him a war criminal, shed light on the canny media strategy used to create the “New Labour” image that repackaged his party as more mainstream and business friendly, bringing it back to power after 18 years in opposition.
Blair, who was premier from 1997 to 2007, enjoyed strong press support in his early years, including backing from media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s influential newspapers. However, he found himself isolated near the end of his decade in power, in large part because of his unpopular decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq.
The greying ex-prime minister said he long had concerns about what he once described as the “feral beasts” of the media, but had to tread carefully where press barons were concerned.
“I took a strategic decision to manage these people, not confront them,” he told Lord Justice Brian Leveson, who is leading the inquiry. “I didn’t say that I feared them ... [but] had you decided to confront them, everything would have been pushed to the side. It would have been a huge battle with no guarantee of winning.”
Leveson’s inquiry was set up following revelations of phone hacking at Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid, a scandal which has rocked the British establishment and raised questions about whether top politicians helped shield Murdoch — and the media in general — from official scrutiny.
Blair’s time at the top has come under particular scrutiny because of the unlikely — and mutually beneficial — alliance the media-savvy prime minister forged between his left-wing Labour Party and Murdoch’s News Corp. Blair became so friendly with Murdoch that he was chosen to be the godfather to one of Murdoch’s children.
The former prime minister made no apologies for courting Murdoch, saying he was just one of several media tycoons who could make life difficult if they were not happy with a position he was taking.
He denied doing any kind of deal with Murdoch, “either express or implied” — although he acknowledged calling the Australian-US tycoon ahead of elections to make sure that Labour could count on News Corp’s support.
Blair’s testimony was interrupted when a heckler burst in through a secure corridor behind Leveson, shouting: “This man should be arrested for war crimes!” before being removed by security.
British media reported that the heckler, who identified himself as filmmaker David Lawley Wakelin, had previously heckled Blair over the 2003 invasion of Iraq at a televised question-and-answer session.