Tony Blair at Leveson as-it-happened

Ian Dunt By

09:39 - Good morning and welcome to another 'Return of Tony Blair to British Politics' event. Last time we did this was the Chilcott inquiry, if I remember correctly, although there are strong rumours of his intention to become a political figure here again, so this may be the start of a trend. The former prime minister completely changed the relationship between Downing Street and the press, which is why he's here. Two events tell the story. The first, in 1995, when he literally flew to the other side of the world to see Rupert Murdoch in the Hayman Islands, Australia. The second came at the very end of his premiership, when he gave a speech warning the media had become a "feral pack". In between there were plenty of incidents and a fundamental alteration of British political and media culture. We saw the dark art of spin from Peter Mandelson and the singlehanded creation of a new stereotype of the angry master political strategist in Alistair Campbell. Oh, and then there's that bit last year when Blair dressed all in white to become godfather of the Murdoch's child on the bank of the River Jordan. As you do.

09:55 - We kick off in five minutes, by the way. The photos of Blair this morning make him look relaxed and confident. He'll probably sail through this as easily - probably more easily - than he did Chilcott, which was a rather more sombre affair. But it will not be without difficulties. Lance Price, who worked with Blair, has been telling anyone who'll listen that Blair's relationship with Murdoch involved him assisting him commercially, although nothing was written down. It was an understanding. That type of stuff is entirely improvable, but it does chime fairly consistently with Tessa Jowell's account of her life as media secretary earlier this month. Right, let's get on with it. The usual caveats apply: There will be typos. If you want to get in touch, email me at, or on Twitter @iandunt, or use the handy little Facebook utility on your right.

10:03 - Something has happened which will upset Blair more than any question from Robert Jay. He has gone unnoticed from the people in court. The BBC's Nick Robinson tweets this: "Tony Blair has just walked into Court 73 without fanfare - accompanied by man with curly earpiece. He's unnoticed by most in court."

10:04 - Blair swears his oath. Robert Jay talks to him in precisely the same disdainful manner he talks to all witnesses. No trace of nerves from Jay or Leveson, or Blair himself (obviously). Jay starts looking at a quote talking about 'disentangling what's inevitable from what is wrong' in political-media relations. Blair gets his glasses out and whips out all that reliable body language he's so good at. He probably does have the most effective hand gestures in British politics. He's wearing a nice, unflashy suit. The kind of nice unflashy suit that probably costs a lot of money.

10:07 - Blair's says he doesn't think the word "close or cosy" are useful. He wants to stick to unhealthy. I wonder why. He explains that as a politician you need to keep all these doors open. "You feel this intense power. I'm open about that and the fact I decided I was going to manage that and not confront it". Interesting.

10:10 - Jay asks whether Blair thinks he is objective. Blair says he's the worst person to say. He believes he can but says there are people who would "strongly dispute my ability to be objective about it". He says the consequences of falling out with media are... then a pause... "harsh". He says his responsibility is "not having confronted this issue". He doesn't believe the way this part (not sure which part - the tabloids?) of the media behaves is not a response to the government. He also insists that Labour's ability to manage the media post-1995 was a major factor in becoming electable. Jay goes historical, pointing to the media drubbing Labour got in the 1980s. He then argues that Blair's reaction was to that created its own culture of spin - "putting a gloss on the truth". Blair says it's hard to dispute that. "I can't believe we're the first government to want to put the best possible gloss on what you're doing. That's different to saying things that are untrue or bullying or harassing journalists. I understand why there's a symmetry. In my view that's not what happened. In 1992 Alistair Campbell wasn't heard of. If you look at the way that election was covered. I went through that election. I remembered it. It was etched on my memory."

10:17 - He's not discussing his 'feral pack' speech. He says Labour entered government still in campaign mode, but eventually adjusted to the rhythm of government. "You've to have a very, very solid media operation," he says. "The difference between support and lack of support is profound. From a political leader's point of view that's what you are aware of. Some media groups you fall out with the editor and the proprietor and still be OK. But those parts, and they tend to be powerful, when you fall out with them you've got a problem in the news and the comment section. That's when it's not healthy."

10:21 - "You fear the power being directed at you," he goes on. Quite Biblical language from Blair today. He said any attempt to take on the media would have been "a major confrontation". It would have cost him his work on the health service, schools and law and order. "If you take this on don't think for a single moment you are not in a long protracted battle". Jay moves him on to a statement where he says some of the media still don't believe there is a problem. "We're confined to a section," he says. "It's very difficult to discuss these issues." He says the best of British journalism is the best in the world. But there is a "genre of writing" where the line between news and comment becomes blurred. "It stops being journalism. It's an instrument of political power, it's propaganda."

10:27 - Jay says the speech was heavily criticised, not least for attacking the Independent. Paxman said he attacked the poodle. "I know what he means," Blair said. He explains why he used the Indie, which presumably has nothing to do with the fact it was the strongest critic of the Iraq war. he insists that it had become a 'viewspaper'. Paxman had to throw in his speech references to the iniquities of government as himself - one that he didn't respect parliament. Unbelievably, Blair is defending his record, as if this still bothers him.

10:31 - It's quite remarkable seeing Blair again. It all comes sweeping back to quickly: the deft, effortless charisma, which is instantly convincing. Then the irritation of the arched eyebrow and faux-innocent grin. Then the self-righteousness and quasi-Messianic incapacity to see any faults in his record. Jay is going through the media reaction to his speech, which is universally hostile. It's quite rewarding to see it read to Blair, actually. He doesn't seem to take any of the criticism well.

10:36 - "There's no problem in a partisan press. That's been part of our journalism for years and is acceptable." He says it's acceptable to pick which stories you show, even if there's "a certain imbalance". What he doesn't accept is when the facts of a story are slanted in a certain way. So it's not about balance, but that facts and opinion are segregated and facts are correctly stated.

10:40 - Jay asks a good question. How do you separate out fact from opinion on gay rights? Blair says that's a valid objection, but that tone matters. The tone on the issue improved immeasurably from the 1980's.

10:42 - Blair says the Times are one of the few newspapers to report fairly. "The Times newspaper is basically eurosceptic but reports Europe fairly." Jay looks at the Sun. Does it exercise a special power and influence? Blair says the Sun and Mail are the most powerful newspapers - the Sun because it is prepared to shift.

10:46 - Murdoch himself is not an "identikit right wing person". He says he wouldn't call him "a tribal Tory... he has bits of him that are very anti-establishment"

10:48 - Blair says he decided more "stuff against the Murdoch interest than for it... did that change their support for me? No it didn't as a matter of fact." He says he felt no commercial pressure, "the pressure for me was more political".

10:49 - If you fall out with the Daily Mail you'll be subject to a "huge sustained attack" against you, your wife, your children. "They do it very well." He asked his office for an analysis of 50 stories when he won re-election the third time and when he left office. All 100 from the Mail were negative. "I don't think there's any doubt where they stand. It is relentless and unremitting when [you fall out with them]."

10:53 - Blair says his relationship with Murdoch is different now he is out of office. Different in a white-robes-on-the-bank-of-the-river-Jordan sort of way, I suppose.

10:55 - Blair's argument - pretty standard for him - is that the problem wasn't his closeness to the media, but the fact they sometimes disagreed with him. Jay asks if he feels he was too close to Rebekah Brooks when he was in power. Blair says she mattered because she was the editor of the Sun. "Towards the end there wasn't a great deal of support left so those people that did I was pretty close to. But bluntly the decision-maker was not Brooks. " Jay: "It was Mr Murdoch." Blair: "Yeah, he was the main decision-maker for sure."

11:02 - In a pre-1997 Murdoch dinner Jay suggests Blair indicated media ownership rules "would not be onerous under Labour". Blair doesn't know if he said that but he may have. "This wasn't to get support from the Murdoch empire," he says. He just wasn't going to do it. Where they did lobby hard was on their commitment to trade union recognition.

11:10 - It became pretty pointless to have the meetings with the Mail group beyond a certain point. It became "pretty pointless" to see the Express people too. Blair says he can't agree to some people' s recollections of their meetings with him. Piers Morgan seems to have radically exaggerated how many times they met, he suggests.

11:14 - Blair discusses his calls with media groups in the run up to the Iraq war. "I wouldn't say there is anything unusual or odd about that when you're facing such a huge issue," he says. Jay: "At that stage all the Murdoch papers in the world had all taken the same position." Blair says the conversations were not about the tone of coverage in the Sun and Times. He says he asked Murdoch what the situation was in the US or Australia. "They were supportive of it and that was that." Jay says some suggest hostile articles in the Sun on President Chirac (who opposed the war) were the result of these chats. Blair denies that.

11:17 - There's a lot of chatter online at how easily Blair is getting away with this. That doesn't seem relevant. He was not invited here to be caught out, but for historical analysis. Jay's approach is considerably less hostile and it must be said that Blair is deploying his usual charm to keep the room in the palm of his hands, but this was never supposed to be an A Few Good Men moment.

11:21 - Blair says it's not as simple as 'Murdoch just backs the winner'. He has strong political views and those are "equal first" with the inner calculation. That's interesting, because the consensus is currently that the Sun's trick really is just to back whoever it thinks will win. Leveson interjects. "Here you are embarking on the prospect of government and you're sufficiently concerned to say 'if they really turn on us all bets are off'. That means power resides in just a few people." Blair: "There is a substantial power there."

11:25 - OK, quick five minute break for Leveson and myself. Back in a bit.

11:38 - And we're back.

11:39 - Jay is reading from Chris Mullin's diary (very highly-regarded text on life as a minor minister in the New Labour period). Now we're on Full Disclosure by Andrew Neil. It's a tour of Blair/media memoirs. Now we're on Alistair Campbell's diary.

11:41 - Jay gives the Keating assessment of Murdoch: He's a big bad bastard and he'll only respect you if you're a big bad bastard too. Blair said he thought that then, and then came to a more nuanced view. He firmly rejects any explicit conversation about media interest - "implied or expressed". The last Keating comment: "Rupert is number one, two three and four and far as Rupert is concerned."

11:44 - This Hayman islands trip was a charm offensive, wasn't it? Leveson inquires. "I wouldn't have been going the whole way round the world unless I was trying to persuade them. The minimum objective was to stop them tearing us to pieces. In the speech I went out my way to express support [for policies which weren't what they wanted to hear] on the other hand what I was perfectly comfortable saying was this Labour party was for aspiration, not merely redistribution. It's not going to go back to the old ways."

11:47 - More from Campbell, this time at how annoyed Blair was that the Murdoch meeting mattered. "I felt it really did matter," he said. He goes off on another speech about the decision not to have a conflict with the media. "What I did in managing it - I was very careful. In article for the Sun you stress the bit of your policy which would appeal, but I didn't change the policy."

11:53 - When did they become close friends. Blair says it was after he left office, and notes the godfather stuff.

11:55 - "All the way through it's a relationship that's about power. And I find those relationships not personal - they are working to me. You are as charming with people and get on with them as best you can. But once you leave office that's not the issue anymore. It can become different and frankly healthier."

11:57 - We're back on Rebekah Brooks. When she took over from Les Hinton she may have been powerful, but when he knew her she was just editor of the Sun. Jay suggests she was "centre of a network capable of organising personalised attacks". Blair says he never asked her to conduct attacks on individuals. "I hate that type of politics and did not engage in it," Blair says.

11:59 - "Most Cabinet ministers will take the call of an editor of a national newspapers. Per se, there's nothing wrong with that. Back in the 60s would that not have been the case?" Leveson interjects. He says it's not about inevitable or wrong. But Blair admits managing the forces of the press was a major part of what he did. Was managing the press ever interfering with the time he had available to solve the most important questions and if so what can be done about it? This is hardly bruising stuff. Blair says most of the calls were pretty short. It was inevitably a part of policy. He uses tuition fees as the example. "Interacting with them would have been important on these issues," he says.

12:04 - Blair says the interaction of social and traditional media means you don't get building opinion. You get tsunami force within hours. "Social media is an integral part of what has happened in [the Arab Spring]." That makes managing media harder and more important. He also has a rather lovely little line, make of it what you will: "You begin at your least capable and most popular, and you end at your least popular and most capable."

12:07 - Did Brooks 'Sarah's law' campaign appeal to him. No, he says, he was "ambivalent. The trouble with these campaigns is if you're not careful the way they are conducted get's out of hand." Jay: "Did you feel it did?" Blair: "Yes."

12:09 - Blair has this interesting habit of using the second person for the first person - 'you talk to these people', 'you do meetings' etc. It turns personal behaviour into standard behaviour. Jay is bouncing all over the place. We're now on policy in the run-up to 1997. Blair, it must be said, has a commendably efficient memory. We haven't heard so much "yeah, I do remember that' the whole inquiry.

12:15 - Blair: "I didn't concede on policy at all. I remained throughout my time as prime minister a pro-European."

12:18 - Big drama! A man breaks into the inquiry and starts shouting about how Blair is a war criminal and was paid by JP Morgan for starting the war in Iraq. Amazingly he got in through the back of the room. he is bundled out, but it takes about one minute. "I'd like to find out how this gentleman managed to access the court through what is a secure corridor," Leveson says. Blair: "What he said about Iraq and JP Morgan is completely untrue. I've never had a conversation with them about that. Part of the difficulty with modern politics is the experience of the reporting of these events is when someone shouts or throws something that's the news."

12:22 - Interestingly, Blair and his guard didn't move - it was court security which got the man out. Leveson's demand for an investigation is presumably an official one and has, well, officially now started. Some reporters say the man may have acquired a press pass. Blair's instant decision to rebut the JP Morgan claims was telling.

12:25 - It's also worth mentioning Blair was cool as a cucumber.

12:26 - How long until a major political figure gets assassinated in London? When Murdoch appeared in parliament he was attacked with a foam pie. Now Blair, who whether you like him or not is major target for many extremists, has someone break into a court and stand just a couple of metres away from him. Admittedly the Murdoch attack could not have happened with metal, as the man couldn't have passed parliamentary security. Probably the same was true today (I don't know). But it certainly seems embarrassing and amateurish.

12:30 - OK, let;s get back to the inquiry. Jay asks if Blair believes most of these instances of government media policy are conspiracy theories. the government didn't do big regulation because it didn't believe it, but more decisions went against Murdoch than for him. Jay brings up the Human Rights Act (HRA). He says News International (NI) wanted full immunity from it. Did he support that position? Yes, he said the issue deserved to be dealt with full on, not as a side angle to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). All our privacy laws, by the way, come from the HRA.

12:35 - Blair backed down as he didn't really mind all that much. Article eight offered a gateway to a privacy law which was consistent with self-regulation. "That's not what they thought at the time," Blair says. "The PCC itself was really the lobbying organ on this one." Leveson suggests it was for redress, not lobbying. Blair: "That's a good point. That's a perfectly reasonable point."

12:38 - It appears the protester was David Lawley-Wakelin - or at least, that's according to an Evening Standard journo.

12:42 - Sorry for the slow updates - but Blair is just regurgitating his 'why I didn't take on the media' speech. Umpteenth time. Leveson still seems fascinated by it.

12:45 - "I've become rather depressed while listening to you," Leveson says. How will there ever be a leader who will grasp the nettle. Blair thinks things are different now and Cameron should do something about it. It's about circumstances, and now the circumstances are prime for it. "What would be unfair would be to leave this prime minister... it's very important he's not left in a position where he is politically exposed on this because that's not fair to him. But on balance it can be done and it should be done now." Once again, Blair is very generous in his comments on Cameron. Is it personal appeal or just a resolution not to attack a new PM?

12:53 - Sky's Sophy Ridge has the full transcript of what the protester said: "This man should be arrested for war crimes. JP Morgan paid him off for the Iraq war. Three months after he invaded of Iraq he held up the Iraq bank for 20 billion, he was then paid 6 million dollars every year, and still is, from JP Morgan - the man is a war criminal."

12:55 - Blair has listed six instances in which he made decisions against Murdoch. Manchester United, the BBC licence fee and digital channels, Ofcom's creation, listed events for sport and the ITV buy out. But he is tough when it's suggested Murdoch was a voice at the Cabinet table, so to speak. "I believed in what I was doing, I didn't need him or anybody else to tell me what to do," he says.

13:01 - And we stop for lunch. I'll be back, and so will Leveson, at 2pm.

14:06 - We're back. Leveson starts with a statement on the intruder. "I very much regret what has happened," he says. "An investigation is being undertaken and I'll give considerations to the steps which can be taken against this particular intruder. I repeat my apologies to Mr Blair."

14:10 - Blair is expressing his view that politics is not longer gentlemanly. It's not longer possible to have a disagreement and still treat the person well, he implies. Blair links it to social media, which he expected to be alternative and more objective to the mainstream media. "If you read what people say - we had the example this morning with the guy bursting into the room - is very personalised and you've got to question someone's motive, it's not because they've taken another position." Blair says there is a "very, very aggressive form of writing - people sending stuff out on the internet which is unnecessarily cruel". He says you have to "shut out the noise which is pretty ugly".

14:14 - Blair says he's "profoundly grateful" he never used text or email, to laughs in the room. He mentions Tom Watson, who was part of the coup attempt against him. He says he would have sacked him if he hadn't resigned. "He's perfectly entitled to his point of view but you can't remain a minister in the government if you've called for the prime minister to go," Blair says, reasonably.

14:18 - Blair on the coverage of his wife Cherie: "Some of them took it too far." Blair says there were 30 legal actions started. "What happens in these attacks is even though you might get an apology, who cares? The story is there, it's written. It's part of the fabric of what's said about a person. The attacks on her, on my children, were unnecessary and wrong."

14:20 - Leveson suggests Blair is saying the ability to secure redress is "simply unsatisfactory". Leveson looked like he was taking the point very seriously. "Even for those in public life there's a line across which it is not justified to go". The manner in which Leveson makes these points, you just know the means of redress element will figure prominently in his report.

14:24 - Blair presses the case, highlighting the disparity between negative stories, such as Mandelson's alleged scandals, and the reports which later vindicated him.

14:28 - Jay bounces around again, to Blair's reaction to the Kinnock assassination by the Sun. He says he put the morning lobby on the record, gave monthly press conferences, went to the liaison committee for cross-examination. "We tried to deal with it, I think it's hard to argue you've got a situation where the media are cowed and bullied," he says.

14:32 - New Labour had a reputation for brutal negative briefings against colleagues and others. Blair emphatically denies it. "I couldn't abide briefing against others, if I thought anyone was doing it I'd be down on them like a ton of bricks," he says.

14:34 - Asked about Ed Balls, Damian McBride and Charlie Whelan - the Brown loyalists -Blair says: "I had my issues with some of those people." He again insists he never asked anyone to brief against someone else. "To the outside world when you're PM you seem like you're all powerful." At the start "it looked like we were carrying everything. Part of the media felt we were far too powerful, we had to be taken on, curbed. In relation to this stuff about dark arts, when you start doing all that stuff all it does is blow back on you."

14:41 - Blair says he's baffled that there should be any debate about getting the facts right in newspaper article. He alludes to the US market. On one side you get the National Enquirer, which is lively but not a paper of record. Then you've got USA Today, New York Times etc, which are. Each of them has got a personality, he says, but you still expect the stories to be accurately written.

14:48 - Jay suggests fewer people would read newspapers if they were "painted in grey" like the real world. Blair says upmarket papers try to present in a straight way. "It's a very pessimistic view of the world to say you can't make news interesting unless you distort it".

14:51 - Blair starts fleshing out his suggestions for media regulation. He wants it independent of government and media, can adjudicate and can offer real redress. He won't rule out statutory legislation. Leveson asks if it could work by being consensual. "It's difficult if it's really important to say you can exclude yourself from it. I don't think in other walks of life you'd have that." Leveson suggests the difference is this is about freedom of speech.

14:54 - Jay pretty much winds up his questioning, but Leveson is going to ask a few more. Usually Leveson's questions are more abstract and theoretical. Except, of course, they're about to become a damn sight less theoretical when he publishes his report.

15:00 - Leveson is going on and on. I've lost track of the question, if there was one. Basically, he wants ideas on making redress cheap and speedy - exemplary damages and the like.

15:07 - A full ten minutes later, Leveson stops talking. God help us I don't know how long Blair's answer will last. He starts by saying the hardest part to deal with is the social media bit, while the easiest bit is privacy and intrusion. Blair mentions political consensus. Leveson says "I have no doubt a political consensus is very important if not critical. One of the greatest concerns I have is that in the absence of such a consensus the whole thing will become too difficult."

15:12 - "I hope the press will work with the solution not against the solution," Leveson says. It's rather odd how open he is being. It's like he's giving evidence. "No doubt the press will pour over the words I have just said to you," he says. Leveson says "I'm not in any way suggesting they shouldn't hold the powerful to account". Interesting he even has to say that.

15:14 - And with that, it's brought to a close. Phew. That's day one of an immense week at Leveson. Over the next two days we've got five Cabinet ministers - including home secretary Theresa May and Michael Gove, a former Murdoch employee. And then, Thursday, it's the main event: Jeremy Hunt. I'll be live blogging through, brining you all the developments as they happen and gradually suffering a complete professional breakdown. See you tomorrow at 10.

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