Tony Blair defends New Labour courting of press

Tony Blair defended his infamous courting of the press at the Leveson Inquiry today, describing it as a “strategic decision” to avoid the wrath of British media groups.

Blair, prime minister from 1997 to 2007, said he was not afraid of taking on the media, but was aware that if he did so he would be mired in a “long protracted battle that will shove everything else to the side.”

During his day-long evidence, which was interrupted by a protester breaking into the courtroom and branding him a “war criminal”, Blair said as a political leader he decided he would “manage that relationship [with the press] and not confront it.”

He repeatedly cited the Daily Mail as attacking him and his family “very effectively”, and slammed the “full-frontal” attacks launched on senior politicians by some sections of the press as “an abuse of power”

“If you fail to manage major forces in the media, the consequences are harsh,” Blair said, adding later that his sole piece of advice to any political leader would be to have a “solid media operation”.

“With any of these media groups, you fall out with them and you watch out,” he said, “because it is literally relentless and unremitting once that happens.”

Blair outlined to the Inquiry, which is currently examining relations between politicians and the press, that ties between the two would inevitably involve “closeness”. These would become unhealthy, he said, “when you were so acutely aware of the power exercised that you got into a situation where it became essential and crucial to have that interaction.”

He said the “imbalance of power” in the relationship was more problematic than the closeness.

However, he defended himself and his party as having “responded” to a phenomenon of media-political closeness than having created it, conceding later that they were “sometimes guilty of ascribing to them [the press] a power that they do not really have.”

His close ties with media mogul Rupert Murdoch are well-documented, with the Murdoch-owned Sun famously backing the Labour party ahead of its landslide win in the 1997 general election. Blair famously flew out to Hayman Island, Australia in 1995 to address Murdoch and News Corp executives, and in 2010 became godfather of Murdoch’s daughter.

When Lord Justice Leveson put it to Blair that the 1995 trip was a “charm offensive”, Blair defended it as a “deliberate” attempt to elicit the support of the Murdoch titles.

“My minimum objective was to stop them tearing us to pieces. My maximum objective was to try and get their support,” he said.

Quizzed about whether the prospect of needing to meet Murdoch in January 1997 had “angered” him, as suggested in Alastair Campbell’s diaries, Blair agreed this was his view and was how he would define the “unhealthy” part of the press-politicians relationship. Such meetings mattered, Blair said, “because the consequence of not getting it right was so severe.”

Yet he stressed he did not “feel under pressure from commercial interests from the Murdoch press or from anybody else”, and denied there were any express or implied deals with him or any other media group.

Blair added that policy was never changed during his time in government as a result of Murdoch, and that his decision not to launch an inquiry into cross-media ownership was not a means of appeasing the News Corp boss. Their relationship until he left office in 2007 was a “working” one, Blair emphasised.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow, with evidence from education secretary Michael Gove and home secretary Theresa May.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Senior civil servant criticises Smith NewsCorp relationship

A senior civil servant said today that culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s former aide was drawn into a “web of manipulation and exaggeration” in the circumstances surrounding News Corp’s bid for a full takeover of BSkyB.

Jonathan Stephens, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) told the Leveson Inquiry this afternoon that special adviser Adam Smith, who resigned after a series of emails between the department and News Corp revealed that the company was being given advance feedback of the government’s scrutiny of the bid, was “inadvertently drawn beyond what he intended to do”.

Stephens, who confirmed he had told Hunt he felt Smith should resign due to the level of “clearly inappropriate” level of contact between the department and News Corp, said it was “matter of intense regret” that the episode occurred. Lord Justice Leveson suggested it was a “calamity” for the DCMS.

“I thought the nature, context, extent and depth of the emails meant this was far beyond what could be considered appropriate,” Stephens told the Inquiry.

He added that he was aware Smith had been in touch with the corporation, but did not know News Corp lobbyist Frederic Michel was his individual point of contact.

Events over the past month have left Jeremy Hunt fighting for his political life. Yesterday a crucial memo came to light that Hunt had sent to David Cameron in support of News Corp’s £8bn bid for control of the satellite broadcaster, sent one month before he was handed the task of adjudicating the bid in December 2010.

In the memo Hunt emphasised to Cameron that it would be “totally wrong to cave in” to the bid’s opponents, and that business secretary Vince Cable’s decision to refer the bid to regulator Ofcom could leave the government “on the wrong side of media policy”.

It was also revealed that his department and News Corp had exchanged 1,000 text messages, 191 phone calls and 158 emails as the bid was under scrutiny from June 2010 to July 2011.

Over the past two days, Smith has been scrutinised about his contact with Michel, and expressed regret for the “perception of collusion” the contact created.

He revealed today that once the emails between him and News Corp were released at the end of April, Hunt had reassured him he would not need to resign, only to be told by him the next day, “everyone here thinks you need to go”.

He resigned from his post last month following the emails’ release, conceding that his contact with News Corp “went too far”.

Hunt, who is scheduled to face questioning over the matter at the Inquiry next Thursday, has contended he acted impartially and within the ministerial code. Today David Cameron said he does not regret handing the bid to Hunt, stressing he acted “impartially”.

The Inquiry continues on Monday.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Jeremy Hunt and Tony Blair to appear at Leveson Inquiry

Next week is set to be one of the most gripping yet in the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

Monday has been reserved for former prime minister Tony Blair, who will likely be questioned about his close relationship with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose tabloid the Sun famously switched its long-standing Conservative allegiance to back the Labour party ahead of the 1997 general election.

Business secretary Vince Cable is scheduled to appear on Wednesday. It is likely he will be quizzed about News Corp’s £8bn bid for the takeover of satellite broadcaster BSkyB, particularly his admission that he had “declared war” on the Murdoch-owned company, which led to his being stripped of responsibility for the bid.

But the highlight will surely come from Thursday’s sole witness, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is fighting for his political life after the revelation of a November 2010 memo he sent to David Cameron in support of News Corp’s £8bn bid for control of the satellite broadcaster one month before he was handed the task of adjudicating the bid.

In the memo Hunt emphasised to Cameron that it would be “totally wrong to cave in” to the bid’s opponents, and that Cable’s decision to refer the bid to regulator Ofcom could leave the government “on the wrong side of media policy”.

The memo has further weakened Hunt’s grip on power, already in doubt after last month’s revelations that his department gave News Corp advance feedback of the government’s scrutiny of the BSkyB bid. Evidence shown to the Inquiry yesterday during News Corp lobbyist Frédéric Michel‘s appearance showed over than 1000 text messages had been sent between the corporation and Hunt’s department, along with 191 phone calls and 158 emails.

The Labour party has since upped the volume on its calls for Hunt to resign, arguing he was not the “impartial arbiter” he was required to be.

Hunt has maintained he acted properly and within the ministerial code, while David Cameron said today he does not regret handing the bid to Hunt, stressing he acted “impartially”.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Adam Smith, Frédéric Michel on BSkyB email controversy

Revelations filled Court 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice today, as Adam Smith, former special advisor to Jeremy Hunt, and Frédéric Michel, chief lobbyist for News Corp took to the stand at the Leveson Inquiry.

Adam Smith, who resigned from his position as Jeremy Hunt’s aide after the Inquiry released a collection of emails between himself and Michel, told the court that David Cameron had appointed Hunt to oversee the BSkyB bid, despite demonstrating his support for the move to the Prime Minister.

Smith explained that Hunt sent the Prime Minister a memo, firmly taking the side of James Murdoch, dismissing and criticising the BBC. In the memo, Hunt also tells Cameron the bid should not be blocked, and asks him to intervene in the decision which should have been the sole responsibility of Vince Cable.

The former aide described a “very close working relationship” with Jeremy Hunt, and described that the pair had an understanding of what was expected of him in his role as special advisor. He added that he and his team were unfamiliar with a “quasi-judicial role”, until Hunt was appointed to oversee the bid, but explained that he approached it in the same way as every other policy.

He added: “My understanding was that Mr Hunt had to decide on the media plurality issues, and Mr Hunt himself had to decide on the bid. There was no difference in the way I approached it.”

Describing his role as Hunt’s advisor, Smith explained acted as a point of contact for organisations wishing to speak to the Secretary of State. He said he would be on the “receiving end of people phoning up to have a grumble about a process”. With particular focus on the BSkyB bid, Smith told the court he acted as “a buffer and a channel of communication” for News Corp.

When asked by Robert Jay QC whether he felt the assertion that Hunt was a “cheerleader” for News Corp as true, Smith disagreed, stating: “He didn’t really have that much of a relationship with ether of the Murdoch’s — he tended to deal with, as the inquiry has heard, Michel.”

Towards the end of his brief spell of evidence, which will continue tomorrow, Smith told the court that his views on the bid which were based purely on expert evidence, were broadly the same as Hunt’s. He added: “I didn’t particularly mind either way whether it happened or not. In a funny sort of way I didn’t see what everyone was getting so worked up about.”

In a much longer session of evidence, Jay thoroughly questioned Frédéric Michel on the emails exchanged between himself, Jeremy Hunt and Adam Smith. Jay detailed more than 1000 text messages which were sent between News Corp and the bid office, along with 191 phone-calls and 158 emails.

Michel insisted to the court that he was under the “impression” that Hunt was aware of the details being passed to him by Smith, in relation to the BSkyB bid, and believed that the “feedback” he was receiving from the aide had been discussed with Hunt. Michel added that the purpose of his contact was to “check the temperature at Westminster.”

The lobbyist also told the court that he received no legal advice into the meaning of a quasi-judicial role, but was aware it was regarded as inappropriate to have discussions with the Secretary of State.

He said: “It was the first time I had to deal with such a transaction — I didn’t have specific detailed reminder of what it meant to have a quasi-judicial process. I was never of the view that it was inappropriate to try to put the view to these offices. The legal team assessed that they key element of a quasi-judicial process was not to have inappropriate contact with the secretary of state.”

Despite that, Jay outlined a range of text messages and emails contacting Hunt, and raised the question of whether his contact with Smith was appropriate. Michel consistently denied that the contact was inappropriate, and stressed that Smith did not offer him a “running commentary” of the proceedings related to the bid.

Michel said: “Smith gave me updates on timings, process, atmospherics of the day. We were in contact a lot and I guess he was being helpful on the process.  I think running commentary is a very broad definition. I think it was much more precise than chit chat commentary.”

He added: “Adam has always been a very warm, professional, available adviser, and always very diligent in his work with me. The only interactions I have had with him were always professional and reliable.”

Adam Smith will appear before the inquiry to complete his evidence tomorrow morning, and Jeremy Hunt is expected to be called to give evidence next week.