Blair tells inquiry he ducked fight with press

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday that he couldn’t stand up to the 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.

LONDON — Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday that he couldn’t stand up to the 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, 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. But he found himself isolated near the end of his decade in power due in large part to his unpopular decision to join the U.S.-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 Blair government’s relationship with Murdoch has since been described by several former colleagues as having been too close for comfort.

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 weren’t 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-American 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.

Such incidents — a testament to the divisiveness of Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq — are routine. Last week, a handful of protesters yelling out “warmonger” interrupted his speech at Colby College in Maine.

Blair, wearing a navy suit and sporting a tan, watched impassively. Leveson, looking ruffled, said he would investigate how the man managed to sneak in to the restricted area.

Wakelin — who was released without charge — later told London radio that he took advantage of an unguarded door in the maze-like Royal Courts of Justice, where the inquiry is being held.

Blair spent a considerable amount of time challenging the reputation his lieutenants built up for bullying, manipulation, and “spin” in his decade in office.

Still, he acknowledged that politics and media had become “far more rude and brutal — and in a sense crude — in its interaction.”

Blair’s appearance kicked off an important week at the judge-led inquiry. Current ministers, including Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Education Minister Michael Gove and Home Secretary Theresa May, are due to testify in the coming days.

Prime Minister David Cameron is also expected to testify before Leveson, whose inquiry was set up last year after it emerged that reporters at the Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid had routinely hacked into the phones of public figure and crime victims.

The scandal has rocked Britain’s establishment, leading to the arrest or resignation of dozens of journalists, media executives, political operatives and police, prison and military officials. It’s also exposed a pattern of wrongdoing across the British press, from bribery to blackmail.

The investigation continues: As Blair was testifying, police said they’d arrested a 42-year-old woman on suspicion of money laundering offences linked to the hacking scandal.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Whistle Stop Cafe owner Christopher Scott and his sister Melodie pose for a photo at the Mirror restaurant. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Alberta Health Services delivers ‘closure order’ to Mirror restaurant

Alberta Health Services says it has delivered a closure order to a… Continue reading

Flags bearers hold the Canadian flag high during the Flags of Remembrance ceremony in Sylvan Lake in this October file photo. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
New project to pay tribute to Canadians killed in Afghanistan

Flags of Remembrance scheduled for Sept. 11

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Alberta vaccine rollout expanding to front-line health-care workers

More than 240,000 eligible health-care workers can begin booking vaccine appointments starting… Continue reading

File photo
The Red Deer Rebels will have three new assistant coaches when the WHL regular season starts on Friday. Brad Flynn (left), will be on the bench alongside fellow assistant Ryan Colville (right) head coach Brent Sutter (middle). (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Sutter steps down as Red Deer Rebels head coach

Red Deer Rebels Owner, GM and head coach Brent Sutter has stepped… Continue reading

Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan is among those who have signed an open letter criticizing the government’s return to stricter health measures. (Advocate file photo).
Updated: Kenney tells UCP caucus COVID-19 dissent OK, breaking health rules means expulsion

15 MLAs released letter on Wednesday critical of new health restrictions

Security and police block the entrance to GraceLife Church as a fence goes up around it near Edmonton on Wednesday April 7, 2021. The Alberta government has closed down and fenced off a church that has been charged with refusing to follow COVID-19 health rules. Alberta Health Services, in a statement, says GraceLife church will remain closed until it shows it will comply with public-health measures meant to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Hundreds gather to support Alberta church shut down for ignoring COVID-19 orders

SPRUCE GROVE, Alta. — Hundreds of people are gathered outside an Alberta… Continue reading

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces march during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Friday, July 8, 2016. The Canadian Armed Forces is developing contingency plans to keep COVID-19 from affecting its ability to defend the country and continue its missions overseas amid concerns potential adversaries could try to take advantage of the crisis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canadian special forces supported major Iraqi military assault on ISIL last month

OTTAWA — Some Canadian soldiers supported a major military offensive last month… Continue reading

A woman pays her repects at a roadblock in Portapique, N.S. on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The joint public inquiry in response to the April mass shooting in Nova Scotia has announced a mandate that includes a probe of the RCMP response as well as the role of gender-based violence in the tragedy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Creating permanent memorial to Nova Scotia mass shooting victims a delicate task

PORTAPIQUE, N.S. — Creating a memorial for those killed in Nova Scotia’s… Continue reading

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 6, 2020. Top Tory leaders of past and present will speak with supporters today about what a conservative economic recovery from COVID-19 could look like. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Erin O’Toole says ‘I didn’t hide who I was’ running for Conservative leader

OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole assured Conservative supporters that he never hid who… Continue reading

Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau, second from left, celebrates his goal with teammates, from left to right, Matthew Tkachuk, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson, of Sweden, during second period NHL hockey action against the Edmonton Oilers, in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal
Jacob Markstrom earns shutout as Flames blank Oilers 5-0 in Battle of Alberta

CALGARY — It took Sean Monahan breaking out of his goal-scoring slump… Continue reading

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia's opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan's government, but they say Monday's throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province's economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

VICTORIA — British Columbia’s opposition parties acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented… Continue reading

A grizzly bear walks on a treadmill as Dr. Charles Robbins, right, offers treats as rewards at Washington State University's Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center in this undated handout photo. Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails like those commonly used by people, which can affect land management practices in wild areas, says an expert who has written a paper on their travel patterns. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Anthony Carnahan *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Grizzly bears prefer walking on gentle slopes at a leisurely pace like humans: study

VANCOUVER — Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails… Continue reading

FILE - In this July 27, 2020, file photo, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. Moderna said Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, its COVID-19 shot provides strong protection against the coronavirus that's surging in the U.S. and around the world. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)
The COVID-19 wasteland: searching for clues to the pandemic in the sewers

OTTAWA — When Ottawa Public Health officials are trying to decide whether… Continue reading

Most Read