Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair Discusses Rupert Murdoch, Media Power

3:34 AM PST 05/28/2012 by Georg Szalai
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"He has bits of him that are meritocratic and anti-establishment," he tells the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics about the News Corp. CEO.

LONDON -- News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch is not the full-fledged conservative he is sometimes described as, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair said here Monday. "I wouldn't say he is a tribal Tory," he said in a reference to the British name for the Conservative Party. "He has bits of him that are meritocratic and anti-establishment."

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Blair was questioned about Murdoch and the power of U.K. media companies during an appearance in front of the Leveson Inquiry, which is probing the relationship of the U.K. media, politics, police and the public. 

The former Labour Party boss and prime minister fro, 1997-2007 had been supported by The Sun, the big tabloid that is part of News International, the U.K. publishing arm of News Corp., which has been at the center of the phone hacking scandal.

Blair generally emphasized the need for politicians to have good relationships with the media in this day and age, but he shrugged off suggestions that he was too close to the News Corp. empire and its representatives. He also described Murdoch as having "substantial power," but repeatedly emphasized that the same goes for other media owners. 

Asked if he decided to put off a review of cross-media ownership rules to please Murdoch, he said no. A review simply felt like a distraction at the time, Blair argued. He said ownership is not the biggest problem; the way the media operates is.

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He argued that his government made more policies against Murdoch's interests than policies in his favor. "I didn't feel under pressure from commercial interests from the Murdoch press or from anybody else," Blair said. Asked if he got too close to News International and its leaders, he said his relationship became "completely different with [Murdoch] and his family" once he left office.

Was he too close to Rebekah Brooks, the former News International CEO? Blair said she played a key role as the editor of The Sun at that time. However, "to put it bluntly, the decision maker was not Rebekah Brooks," he emphasized. "It was Rupert Murdoch, for sure."

Overall, Blair said that the relationship between media and politics is "inevitably" close and involves tension. Political leaders without "reasonably strong" ties to the media would be a "pretty strange" breed today, he added. After all, in this day and age, it is "essential and crucial" to have good relationships with the media. If your relationship has a falling out, the effect on a political leader is "harsh."

"You then are effectively blocked from getting across your message," Blair said.

He later added: "With any of these big media groups, if you fall out with them, then watch out, because it is relentless." If you make an enemy out of them, they are "really out against you," he said. In his witness statement, Blair similarly said that media owners use newspapers and other media "as instruments of political power." He emphasized, though, that "this is not confined to the Murdoch media" empire.

The Sun and Daily Mail are the U.K.'s most powerful papers, Blair suggested. The former, the best-selling tabloid in the country, may even be more powerful because it affects swing voters and is "willing to shift" its political support, he acknowledged when questioned further.

Blair's appearance before the Leveson Inquiry also will make headlines around the world as a protester burst into the courtroom to shout at Blair as he gave evidence.

The casually dressed man entered from behind a curtain almost directly behind Lord Justice Brian Leveson, the head of the inquiry, inside Court 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice.

The protester, later named in reports as David Lawley-Wakelin, 49, shouted: "Excuse me. This man should be arrested for war crimes. J.P. Morgan paid him off for the Iraq War three months after we invaded Iraq, then held up the Iraq bank for £20 billion ($31.3 billion). He was then paid $6 million very year, and still is, from J.P. Morgan, six months after he left office. The man is a war criminal."

Several security guards grappled with the man and dragged him away through the same door from which he had entered as a clerk murmured, "How on Earth did he get in?"

Leveson appeared shocked and asked the court how the man had gained entry from what should have been a secure corridor.

"I'm sorry for that, Mr. Blair," the judge said.

Blair said it was fine, adding: "Can I just say, actually, on the record: What he said about Iraq and J.P. Morgan is completely and totally untrue. I've never had a conversation about [Iraq]."

Leveson told Blair that he did not need to respond to the intruder's accusations.

"I appreciate that, but part of the difficulty with modern politics -- and this is not a criticism of the media -- is that my experience of the reporting of these events is that you can have 1,000 people in a room and someone gets up and shouts or throws something, and that's the news," Blair said. "The other 999 might as well have not bothered turning up."

Leveson has ordered an investigation into security procedures at his inquiry.

"[Lawley-Wakelin] has been arrested on suspicion of breach of the peace," a spokesman for Scotland Yard said. "He is currently in custody at a central London police station."

The incident recalled the time 10 months ago when a protestor hurled a fake foam pie hurled at Murdoch as he gave evidence to a Parliamentary select committee investigating phone-hacking. The mogul's wife Wendi Deng Murdoch made her own headlines that day by swiftly fending off the would-be attacker.

Unlike that incident, Blair's wife was not on hand Monday to leap to the former PM's defense.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai

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