Tony Blair At the Leveson Inquiry: No Surprises (Almost)
A documentary filmmaker, David Lawley-Wakelin, broke into the long-running Leveson Inquiry as former Prime Minister Tony Blair was testifying and accused him of being paid by JP Morgan Chase when he sent British troops to support the American forces during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Lawley-Walkin shouted “This man should be arrested for war crimes” and called Blair a “war criminal.” Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson told Blair that he was “sorry for that” and that he did not have to respond to the protester; Blair denied the accusations, commenting that it was his “experience that if you had 1,000 people in an event and somebody got up and shouted something, then it’s as if the other 999 needn’t have bothered showing up.”
The morning intrusion in the court lasted only about a half a minute of the seven hours set aside for the former Labour leader to testify. As the New York Times commented, the intrusion “seemed also to show how Mr. Blair’s deployments of British forces still haunt him five years after he left office.” It also brought into question what sort of security is in place at the courts — as well as, perhaps, with what gravity one is to regard the inquiry — and brought to mind an incident last July, when a protester threw a pie at News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch. The octogenarian media executive had been in the midst of testifying before a Parliamentary select committee regarding the phone hacking scandal that had led to him shuttering the 168-year-old tabloid the News of the World after revelations surfaced that the paper’s staff had hacked into the voicemail of a murdered 13-year-old, Milly Dowler, prior to her body being found.
Blair on Murdoch, the Press and Politicians
Blair’s relationship with Murdoch and with the media was the main focus of the questioning, though it is debatable if his responses will shed any real new light on the the investigation.
Blair defended the efforts of politicians to build relationships with the media and specifically with news media owners and editors. He said he had courted Murdoch’s support before the 1997 general election, flying “half way round the world” to visit him on Hayman Island in Australia to seek the support of his top-selling tabloid The Sun and to reverse what was a hostile relationship between the Labour Party and the press. While acknowledging that it was “absolutely” important to have The Sun‘s support, Blair said that Labour would still have won, even without The Sun‘s support.
Blair insisted that his relationship with Murdoch and also Rebecca Brooks, the former editor of the NoW who resigned from her position as CEO of News International in the midst of the hacking scandal last year, had only become closer after he left office in 2007. Regarding the revelation that Blair was named godfather to one of Murdoch’s children, Grace, when she was baptized on the banks of the River Jordan in a ceremony hosted by Queen Rania of Jordan in 2010, Blair said that
“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.”
Throughout the day, Blair insisted that the views of the press had not at all affected him, notes the BBC.
“I don’t know a policy that we changed as a result of Rupert Murdoch,” he said.
In his written statement, Mr Blair says his government “more often than not” rejected the views expressed by the Murdoch media, and he provided six examples of when the Labour government had shown such robustness.
Blair insisted that “British journalism at its best is the best in the world” and that a “close interaction” between the media and politicians, even at senior levels, “has always been the case and is going to go on.” There are cases, he commented, when journalists are “driven with an aggression and a prejudice”; at such times, “It stops being journalism…It becomes an instrument of political power or propaganda,” said Blair.
Blair also noted that his wife, Cherie Blair, has considered taking legal action against the press, or actually done so, 30 times.
A number of other senior politicians are due to appear at the Leveson Inquiry this week. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is to appear on Thursday, is under notable pressure due to his handling of News Corp.’s aborted attempt to take over Britain’s biggest satellite broadcaster, BSkyB.
As in the case of Brooks whose clothing and hair were commented quite a bit on during and after her testimony at the Leveson Inquiry earlier in May, Blair drew comments on Twitter and in publications including the New York Times regarding his appearance (“he appeared in a dark suit and white tie that offset a deep tan”). Along with the disruption caused by Lawley-Wakelin (who was released by the London police without being “charged or cautioned”), spectacle seems to be as much a part of the inquiry as the actual questioning.
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Photo by Center for American Progress