Seven things we learned from Tony Blair's evidence to Leveson

Blair: What we learned
Blair: What we learned
Ian Dunt By

Tanned, confident and wearing that same old grin, Tony Blair returned to the UK to tell Leveson about his experiences with the media today. It wasn't the most electrifying session of the inquiry, but we did learn a thing or two from the former prime minister's testimony. Here's our pick of the highlights:

Someone is definitely going to get assassinated in London

First Rupert Murdoch was attacked with foam while appearing at a select committee in parliament. Today, a man in a white shirt burst from the back of the court room and started shouting at Blair. Lord Leveson is many things, but he is not Wendi Deng and he does not have her capacity for violence. The man running the inquiry stood rather limply asking the man to leave until officials bundled him away. If this level of security is now standard it really is only a matter time before someone gets killed.

Blair was angry about the treatment of Cherie

And the newspaper he blames the most is the Daily Mail. "I don't think there's any doubt where they stand. It is relentless and unremitting when [you fall out with them]," he said of the mid-market tabloid. "They do it very well."

He did an assessment of stories about him by the newspaper after he won a third term and when he left office and all 100 were negative. But his harshest words were reserved for the treatment of his wife, who launched over 30 legal actions in response. "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."

Murdoch does decide the editorial line of his papers after all

In a revelation which will surprise precisely no-one, Blair said Murdoch was indeed the decision-maker when it came to the Sun's politics, rather than editor Rebekah Brooks. Of course, everyone knows that, but just a few weeks earlier Murdoch had been insisting he took a hands-off approach. "Put bluntly, the decision-maker was not Brooks," Blair admitted. Inquiry counsel Robert Jay then said: "It was Mr Murdoch." Blair replied: "Yeah, he was the main decision-maker for sure."

Blair also alluded to the arc of their relationship, starting with his frantic round-the-world trip to pay homage at the Murdoch shrine in the Hayman islands in 1995. "I wouldn't have been going the whole way round the world unless I was trying to persuade them [to back Labour]," he explained. "The minimum objective was to stop them tearing us to pieces." It all stemmed from Blair's memory of the 1992 election, when the press tore Labour to pieces. You can see it left an impression on Blair. "Look at the way that election was covered," he said. "I went through that election. I remembered it. It was etched on my memory."

As for Murdoch himself, Blair alluded to the fact he was godfather to one of his children and said his views of the man had evolved. He's not an "identikit right wing person", Blair said, and he certainly wasn't "a tribal Tory... he has bits of him that are very anti-establishment".

Blair denied any dark arts in Downing Street

Blair was defensive about the suggestion that New Labour introduced the dark arts to British politics. "I can't believe we're the first government to want to put the best possible gloss on what you're doing," he said. "That's different to saying things that are untrue or bullying or harassing journalists."

He insisted the reports of negative briefings against colleagues like Mo Mowlam were nonsense. "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 said. "When you start doing all that stuff all it does is blow back on you."

So where did all these rumours come from, you might ask? Well, it’s the media's fault apparently. "To the outside world when you're PM you seem like you're all powerful," he explained. "It looked like we were carrying everything. Part of the media felt we were far too powerful, we had to be taken on - curbed."

But as for the Brown camp, well, they might have done it, Blair seemed to imply. Asked about Brownite loyalists Ed Balls, Damian McBride and Charlie Whelan, Blair had just this to say: "I had my issues with some of those people." Old wounds.

The media is too powerful

Blair repeatedly castigated himself for not taking on the media. "You feel this intense power," he said. "I'm open about that and the fact I decided I was going to manage that and not confront it". Why didn’t he? Because everything would have become about that and he'd never have got a fair hearing. "You've got to have a very, very solid media operation," he said. "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 you'll 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." Basically, it all came down to that 1992 election experience and Blair's determination that Labour would develop a professional media operation.

Blair kind of likes Cameron

It’s too frequent to be a coincidence. Everytime he's asked about Cameron Blair goes out of his way to be kind to him. Perhaps he just understands the pressures of the job. Perhaps he thinks it’s bad form for a former PM to criticise a current one (although there is evidence – John Major came out against Brown). Perhaps he recognises Cameron as a disciple, which is basically what he is. Regardless, Blair is generous towards the Tory leader. Speaking about Leveson's final report, he told the inquiry: "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."

Blair's still got it

Finally, we learned that Blair's still got the charm. He had them all, from Jay downwards, in the palm of his hand. No other witness has made the inquiry laugh so much. Jay seemed all over the place, bouncing around historically and conceptually instead of adopting out his usual forensic, structured approach to questioning. It was all a little too easy for Blair.

He even had some killer lines which ring in the memory once everything else fades. His best one perfectly encapsulates what was so frustrating about the man. It is eloquent but typical of his wilful self-blindness.

"You begin at your least capable and most popular, and you end at your least popular and most capable."

Even now, Blair refuses to believe he was wrong about anything. But he refuses to believe it very engagingly.


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