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Leveson: Tony Blair criticises political power of media


Former Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives at the High Court in London to evidence to Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives at the High Court in London to evidence to Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

Max Nash

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives at the High Court in London to evidence to Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has told the Leveson Inquiry that it was "unhealthy" that certain parts of the media used newspapers as "instruments of political power".

He said: "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."

In his statement to the inquiry he said: "Politicians will often interact with them closely. Disentangling what is inevitable from what is wrong is a profound challenge."

He went on: "My argument would be that the unhealthy nature of this relationship is not the product of an individual but of a culture.

"It is the draining of the poison of that culture that is the real challenge, a challenge deepened by the arrival of the social media and one not at all confined to the UK."

"I cannot believe we were the first and only Government which has wanted to put the best possible gloss on what you were doing," Mr Blair, Prime Minister between 1997 and 2007, told inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson.

"That is a completely different thing from saying you should go out and say things that are untrue or bully and harass journalists. I read a lot of things we are supposed to have done and I dispute them."

Mr Blair, Labour leader between 1994 and 2007, said the 1992 general election, which Labour lost, was "etched" on his memory.

He said he was "absolutely determined" Labour would not be subjected to the same "media onslaught" when he was leader.

Despite having once compared the media with a feral beast, Mr Blair stressed that British journalism at its best "is as good as it is in the world".

But he criticised the genre of journalism "where because this line between news and comment gets blurred, it stopped being journalism, it's an instrument of political power and propaganda."

He also argued there was little recourse for anyone who had a complaint about the press other than libel.

"There's not really a place you can go to complain and get redress and most people would say the PCC (Press Complaints Commission) isn't operated in a way that provides that accountability," he said.

"The thought is we need a process of accountability that's continuing and which influences the culture in which you behave."

Mr Blair said the "pace" of news coverage had increased since he took office in 1997.

And he added: "My advice to any political leader would be, 'you have got to have a very, very solid media operation'."

He said governments could fall out with newspapers and there were situations where "relationships moved from being sensible to being crucial".

But Mr Blair said he had decided that media relations was "not an issue I was going to take on".

He listed other issues at the top of his agenda - including health, crime and education - and said taking on the media issue would have "pushed out" issues he cared more about.

Mr Blair said The Sun and The Daily Mail are the most powerful newspapers.

He added: "The Sun particularly because it is prepared to shift, it makes it all the more important."

He added: "Once they are against you that's it. It's full frontal, day in, day out, basically a lifetime commitment."

Mr Blair said the lines between news and comment had become too blurred.

He said the problem he faced as a political leader was the press became partisan in its news coverage telling the inquiry "it becomes all the more important to try to prevent yourself becoming an object of attack".

Earler, had cut a relaxed and smiling figure as he strode into the Royal Courts of Justice.

Arriving in a black Range Rover at around 8.30am - a good hour and a half before the scheduled kick off - he waved at the assembled bank of press photographers as he entered through a side door of the London court.

But outside the main entrance, the two dozen or so protesters who had gathered were not smiling.

Waving banners reading "Troops home", "Bliar" and "Afghanistan out", they greeted the former Prime Minister with an angry reception.

Mary Macmillan, a Fabian from Soho in London, carried a large knitted puppet of a judge bearing a sign on its chest reading "Blair the day of judgment."

The 78-year-old said: "I was a 1997 Labour Party person when Blair got his majority and I'm afraid he's proved a great let-down.

"We got very few things that he promised. The war in Afghanistan is the greatest treachery.

"I'm glad we could get here today because it's very difficult to get hold of Blair."

Anti-war artist Chris Holden, 69, from London, repeated the familiar argument that the Iraq war - Blair's most controversial act in office - had been "for the oil".

He asked: "Why can't they just come out and say (it?)"

Shouts of "traitor" also came from the small but dogged crowd determined to pursue the ex-premier wherever he turned up.

"Truth and justice is the central message", Mr Holden said.

But "justice" for the perceived wrongs of the Iraq war was not on the bill for today's hearing about Blair's relationship with the media.

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