LONDON // Tony Blair said that during his decade as prime minister he did nothing to “confront” the British media in general and Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers in particular.
But Mr Blair, who became godfather to Mr Murdoch’s daughter after he left office in 2007, denied he had struck a deal with the US-based media mogul to relax media-ownership laws in return for the backing of The Sun, Mr Murdoch’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, in three general elections.
Mr Blair was testifying to the judicial inquiry in London, which was set up after the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World and which is currently focusing on politicians’ relationships with media owners and Mr Murdoch in particular.
The hearing was briefly interrupted when a man opposed to the US support of the invasion of Iraq burst in and shouted: “This man should be arrested for war crimes.”
Lord Justice Brian Leveson, the senior judge heading the inquiry, ordered an immediate investigation into the security breach after the intruder was led away by guards.
Mr Blair had earlier admitted making three phone calls to Mr Murdoch in the days immediately preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But he said there was nothing wrong with his actions and that he had spoken to the proprietors of other British newspapers in the same period.
“I would have been wanting to explain what I was doing. I don’t think there was anything particularly odd or unusual about that,” he said.
He did admit, however, that there was, traditionally, an “unhealthy” relationship between senior politicians and the media in Britain.
“I’m just being open about that and open about the fact that, frankly, I decided as a political leader that I was going to manage that and not confront it,” he said.
Asked why he had decided not to challenge the relationship, Mr Blair said that it would have resulted in an “absolute major confrontation” with the British press that would have lasted for years and would have detracted from his party’s goals.
He conceded that, as prime minister, he and his advisers had got close to media owners in a bid to put the best “spin” on news about government policies.
“I can’t believe we are the first and only government that has ever wanted to put the best possible gloss on what we’re doing, that is a completely different thing to saying that you go out to say things that are deliberately untrue,” Mr Blair added.
On his personal relationship with Mr Murdoch, he said they had only become friends after he had left office and that he would never have become godfather to his daughter had he still been prime minister. But he said he had expressly attended a News Corp conference in Australia in 1995 with the intention of winning over the backing of the Murdoch newspapers in Britain.
In the 1997 general election, The Sun switched its traditional support for the Conservatives to giving crucial support to Mr Blair’s Labour Party.
He also said he sent a message of sympathy to Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News Corp’s newspapers in Britain, after she was forced to quit last yearat the height of the phone-hacking scandal, explaining that he was “not just a fair-weather friend”.