Leveson inquiry: Tony Blair defends links with Rupert Murdoch

TONY Blair has claimed that his links to Rupert Murdoch were nothing more than “a working relationship” until he left office in 2007.

• Tony Blair gives evidence at the Leveson Inquiry

• Former Labour PM details relationship with Rupert Murdoch

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• Protester interrupts Mr Blair’s evidence

The former prime minister admitted today that relations between politicians and the press had “become unhealthy”, but he insisted that he had not done any deal with News Corp to get the support of the Sun in the 1997 general election.

Mr Blair was the first senior politician to give evidence to the inquiry into press standards chaired by the High Court judge Lord Leveson, where he also defended Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, saying that it was “unfair” he had been exposed to criticism over the scandal.

The defence came despite attacks by Labour on Mr Cameron for his links to the Murdochs, including employing the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who has been arrested over phone hacking, as his chief spin doctor in Downing Street.

But much of the first session focused on Mr Blair’s trip to Hayman Island, Australia, in 1995, to meet Mr Murdoch and senior News Corp executives.

Mr Blair said: “I would describe my relationship with him as a working relationship, until after I left office.

“Despite all this stuff about me being godfather to one of his children, I would not have been godfather to one of his children on the basis of my relationship in office.

“After I left office, I got to know him. Now it’s different. It’s not the same.”

Mr Blair said he had been in a powerful position as prime minister, and Mr Murdoch had been in a powerful position as boss of a media empire.

“It was a relationship about power,” said Mr Blair. “I find these relationships are not personal, they are working, to me.”

About a third of his meetings in the early days were with the Murdoch empire, but that proportion grew as he neared the end of his leadership, as it was one of the few organisations that remained supportive, he said.

Mr Blair said the Sun and the Daily Mail were the most powerful newspapers and he eventually gave up meeting the latter because it became so hostile.

Once they had turned against you, it was a “full frontal, day in day out, lifetime commitment”, he added.

He said it was inevitable that politicians and journalists would have close working links, but said newspapers had become an instrument of political power.

He also pointed out that he had thwarted the Murdochs on several occasions, including allowing the blocking of the buy-up of Manchester United by Sky.

Mr Blair portrayed his family as victims of the press, saying his wife, Cherie, had made more than 30 complaints.

He said in 2001, he had asked Mr Murdoch whether his newspapers would support Labour – and could not see anything wrong in doing that. “I think I would have done that for any major group,” said Mr Blair. “I cannot recall ever doing that specifically with other groups.”

Mr Blair came to the defence of Mr Cameron, telling the inquiry: “I think it’s very important he is not left in a position where he’s politically exposed on this, because that’s not fair to him, because you should be under no doubt at all that this is going to be extremely difficult.”

Asked about his relationship with former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, Mr Blair said he was in qualified agreement with her assessment of their relationship. She has described formal, informal and social meetings with him and called him “a constant presence in my life for many years”.

Asked if he thought this was accurate, Mr Blair replied: “Yeah, if I take the whole of the relationship within government, but then I think I would say that about most of the senior political media people.”

He confirmed Ms Brooks had had access to him whenever she wanted it, but stressed that all prime ministers would almost certainly have seen “media managing” as a major part of the job.

However, he said that, as with Mr Murdoch, he became closer to Ms Brooks after he left office.

Mr Blair denied New Labour had run a press operation that used bullying tactics and favouritism to manipulate journalists.

Pressed by leading counsel Robert Jay, QC, over why a “mythology” had built up around the “dark arts”, he insisted he “hated” that type of politics.

“I have never authorised or said to someone, go out and brief against this person or that person,” he said. “I hate that stuff. It’s the lowest form of politics.”