Blair chose not to tackle 'unhealthy' power of UK press


FORMER BRITISH prime minister Tony Blair has accepted that he made a “strategic decision” not to tackle the “unhealthy” power of the British press when he took office in 1997.

During evidence to the Leveson inquiry, Mr Blair said a close relationship between senior politicians and the media was inevitable, necessary and appropriate and should not to be frowned upon if handled properly by all sides.

However, in Britain it had become unhealthy because the relationship between the two, which should be marked by a degree of tension, had become one where politicians “feel this pretty intense power and the need to try and deal with that”, he said.

“The consequence of the above is that any politician who falls out with a section of that media, or in respect of whom they turn hostile, has a serious and potentially politically life-threatening problem,” he said.

“And I’m just being open about that and open about the fact, frankly, that I decided, as a political leader – and this was a strategic decision – that I was going to manage that and not confront it. We can get on to whether that was right or wrong.”

If he had, his plans to reform British society would have been put on hold. “I would have been engaged in a titanic battle with immensely powerful media interests who would not have hesitated to go after me and my government with everything at their disposal,” Mr Blair said.

“I do not minimise the importance of this at all. It is an essential debate for our democracy.

“But, for government, our priority had to be around the economy, schools, health, crime, security and foreign policy. For government to lead this debate is inherently difficult and fraught.”

British politicians must stay united when faced with the fruits of the Leveson inquiry, he said, because it will be very difficult for prime minister David Cameron to act if he believes that he will face disproportionate censure from the press.

During an intervention, Mr Justice Brian Leveson said: “But Mr Cameron may say it’s rather easy for you or the other party to say ‘Now is the time for the prime minister to grasp the nettle’. I’ve become rather depressed as I’ve listened to you. Do you think it’s different now?”

Replying, Mr Blair insisted that an opportunity to act did now exist.

“This is what sometimes happens in life, never mind politics, is that something people have known needs to be sorted out, suddenly the circumstances become such that people say: ‘Right, it’s got to be sorted out’.”

Mr Blair insisted that he had not been asked for political favours by News Corporation’s head, Rupert Murdoch, during his time in power, and he argued that Labour “had more often decided against it than for it”.

He acknowledged, however, that his views about the British press were hardly objective: “So, in my case, the Murdoch media was broadly supportive; the Mail group was violently hostile. For other leaders, it will have been different.”

In a speech in 2007, just before he left Downing Street, Mr Blair described the British press as a “feral” beast that was now out of control: “Rereading the speech . . . it still represents my view and it at least pinpoints the issues,” he said.

The “unhealthy nature” of the ties between the press and politicians are not the product of an individual but of a culture, he said, adding: “It is the draining of the poison from that culture that is the real challenge, a challenge deepened by the arrival of social media.”

Some elements of the British press are among the finest in the world, he accepted, but some newspapers will viciously penalise politicians in their news columns, not just in editorials or columns, because they disagree with them on some matter.

The “almost uniquely deep penetration” of tabloid newspapers in Britain “influences hugely the agenda of the broadcasters who tend, in my experience, to default to the print stories”.

The genre of a certain part of the UK print media is defined by a style and culture of writing that is very aggressive and designed for maximum shock and impact, sometimes more than a genuine desire to inform and debate, he said.

“Most important of all, certain of the newspapers are used by their owners/editors as instruments of political power, in which the boundary between news and comment is deliberately blurred – ie they do not report political news in a carefully objective way; but rather to promote a point of view.

“This is not confined to the tabloid press. So if you combine this genre of writing with this use of the media, the effect is very powerful,” he wrote, in a detailed opening statement to the inquiry.