By Janet Stobart, Los Angeles Times –
LONDON — Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended his relationship with media owner Rupert Murdoch during questioning Monday before a panel looking into the practices and ethics of the press and its dealings with politicians and public figures.
During the morning session, an antiwar protester burst into the courtroom, rushing to the bench of the judge leading the panel and shouting, “This man is a war criminal,” accusing Blair of profiting from the Iraq war.
Media reports identified the protester as David Lawley Waklin from a group that had opposed the Iraq war. He was detained.
Seemingly unfazed by the intrusion, Blair insisted that he was not unduly influenced during his decade in office that began in 1997 by his relationship with Murdoch or the media owner’s News International, which publishes the Sun and the London Times.
Blair defended the need of a prime minister to work with the media but rejected suggestions he ever conceded favors to them. The power that media groups exercised on public opinion and political life had not forced him to calibrate his policies to reflect their views, he testified.
Blair admitted he flew to Australia before his rise to power 1995 to meet with Murdoch and ask for his support, but denied he made a deal on rules governing cross-media ownership in favor of the media baron.
A close relationship with the media was “unhealthy” but “inevitable,” Blair said.
“If you’ve got a readership of 3 (million) to 4 million, that’s power,” he said, alluding to Murdoch’s popular bestselling Sun tabloid. “If you looked at those main media blocks of which Murdoch’s was the most powerful … that’s a factor you had to take into account when planning your strategy.”
Blair told how he developed a “working relationship” with Murdoch once he was in office. As prime minister, his policy on media power was “to manage these people (the press), not confront them.”
The approach was taken not out of fear, he said, but simply to enable his government to get on with its job. Confrontation meant “you would have been in a huge battle with no guarantee of winning,” he added.
Blair condemned some media intrusion into private life as “not a necessary part of the political domain.” He termed the “full-on, full-frontal, day-in, day-out” targeting by the popular press on people’s private lives — such as he and his wife, attorney Cherie Blair, experienced — as “an abuse of power.”
The inquiry, which is presided over by senior High Court Judge Brian Leveson, is one of several looking into media relations with politicians and those in the public eye. Three police investigations, following in the wake of allegations of illegal phone hacking and surveillance by News International journalists and private investigators, have so far led to more than 40 arrests of media and public officials.
The scandal broke last summer after the hacking of a teenage crime victim’s phone by Murdoch’s News of the World led to the closure of the tabloid.
The Leveson inquiry initially took evidence from media figures, including Murdoch and his former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, who was herself arrested. The panel is now questioning politicians. Interviewees have been asked for views on eventual solutions to regulate media practices without endangering the principles of press freedom and privacy laws.