Leveson inquiry will hear from former prime minister, who transformed Labour’s relationship with rightwing press
Tony Blair will give evidence to the Leveson inquiry on Monday in a long-awaited hearing that will explore one of the most contentious features of New Labour’s approach to power.
The former prime minister will be grilled in some detail about his relationship with Rupert Murdoch but, during a session scheduled to last a full day, he is also likely to talk about how he transformed his party’s relationship with the media and enjoyed both adulation and vilification at the hands of the press during his 10 years at No 10.
Blair’s evidence will be followed by three more days of appearances from senior politicians, with Michael Gove, the education secretary, and Theresa May, the home secretary, giving evidence on Tuesday, Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary, and Vince Cable, the business secretary, up on Wednesday, and the embattled Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, on the stand for a full day on Thursday.
Blair has been out of office for almost five years and will not be under pressure in the way he was when he last submitted himself to interrogation-by-inquiry, over Iraq. But he is still sensitive about his relationship with Murdoch, as became clear last September when it emerged he had kept secret for more than a year the fact that he was godfather to one of Murdoch’s children.
When Blair became leader, Labour’s relationship with News International, and the rest of the rightwing press, was marked by mutual loathing and distrust. But Blair began to forge a good relationship with Murdoch when he flew to Hayman Island in Australia in 1995 to address a News Corporation conference, and by 1997 the Sun had become an enthusiastic cheerleader for New Labour.
Murdoch’s conversion has generated much speculation about what Blair offered in return. In his history of his relationship between prime ministers and the media, Lance Price, who worked for Blair in No 10, said there was a pact between News International and Labour.
“A deal had been done, although with nothing in writing,” wrote Price, although this claim was rejected by Alastair Campbell, Blair’s communications chief, and Lord Mandelson, one of Blair’s closest allies, when they gave evidence to Leveson.
Blair’s attempts to convert other traditionally conservative newspapers was less successful, although for years he managed to persuade papers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph to be far less hostile to Labour than they had been. This was attributed to the power of spin, at which New Labour was said to excel.
But, as Andrew Marr, the former BBC political editor, explained in his evidence to Leveson, New Labour’s genius at manipulation eventually backfired.
“Tony Blair quickly became famous in Fleet Street for inviting in one group of newspaper people and telling them how sceptical he was about Europe; and then inviting in another lot and telling them how keen he was on Europe,” Marr said. “But the different groups compared notes, and his reputation was not hugely enhanced.”
By the end Blair had become disillusioned with the press and, in his final weeks in office, he gave a speech describing journalists as “feral beasts”.