Tony Blair Swaggers Into Leveson But Admits: 'I Chose Not To Take On The Press'

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Tony Blair has said he felt the power of the British media was unhealthy while he was PM - but chose not to take it on as it would have prevented him from pursuing any other policies while in power.

Blair went into the Leveson inquiry on Monday looking relaxed, with his suit jacket thrown over this shoulder, and gave a near perfect Blair-style performance with all the familiar hand gestures thrown in.

Such was the clamour to see the former Labour leader's appearance that his journey through London's roads to the courts was followed live on Sky News by a helicopter.

Giving very little away during his early evidence, the former prime minister said he made a decision in the run-up to the 1997 general election to "manage" the press rather than "confront it".

tony blair

Tony Blair batted away a lot of the tricky questions put to him

"I took a strategic decision this was not an issue I was going to take on," he said. "I was trying to do a lot of things I believed in for the country and the Labour party."

"Had I bevelled that it was the most important thing for the government to do I would have done it.

"Had you decided to confront, everything else would have been pushed to the side, it would have been a huge battle with no gaurantee of winning."

A relaxed Blair said that to have launched an investigation into the ethics of the press such as the current Leveson inquiry would have eaten up his entire first term in government.

"My view is that you would have had to clear the decks, this would have been an absolutely major confrontation, you would have virtually every part of the media against you in doing it," he said.

"The price you would pay for that would be to push out a lot of the things you cared more about."

He added: "I was not going to have the Labour Party come back into power with a programme of change for the coutnry and having the centre piece to do with media ownership, I thought that would have been a distraction and wrong.

Blair remained calm even as a protester stormed into the court room to accuse him of being a "war criminal".

He told Leveson that his main problem with the way the tabloid press operated was that it too often merged comment with news - giving a distorted picture of the facts to the public.

"Those papers who are eurosceptic are perfectly entitled to be," he said. "What they shouldn't do is frankly make up a whole lot of nonsense and dish it up to the readers."

Blair said that once tabloids such as the Daily Mail decided to oppose someone then they came under "huge and sustained attack".

"You fall out with them and you watch out, because it is literally relentless and unremitting once that happens," he said.

Lord Mandelson told the Leveson inquiry last week that it was "arguably the case... that personal relationships between Blair, Brown and Rupert Murdoch became closer than was wise".

Blair famously flew to Hayman Island in Australia to address News Corp executives in 1995, as part of a Labour strategy to gain a hearing with newspapers which had savaged previous leaders Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.

And it emerged last year that he formed a close enough relationship with Murdoch to become the godfather to one of the media tycoon's children in 2010.

However the former prime minister insisted that New Labour "decided more stuff against the Murdoch interest than in favour of it."

Blair admitted that he was "perfectly comfortable" with attempting to court the Murdoch press as it "really did matter" what was said about Labour in the media.

However he strongly denied he made any sort of "deal" with Murdoch whereby he would change policies in exchange for favourable press coverage.

"I was a pro-european when I came in, and I left in the same position. I did not change our position on core policy issues at all," he said.

Blair said that he did not fear News Corporation and that if it had decided to "wage war" on New Labour he would have "stood up to them".

"If they had started to treat me as they had Neil Kinnock, I would have fought back in a very tough way," he added.

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Blair's time in front of Leveson has come to a close. Towards the end it was less of a grilling more of a cosy fireside chat.

Join us tomorrow when we will hear from education secretary (and former Times journalist) Michael Gove and home secretary Theresa May.

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Lord Justice Leveson just asked Blair what may have been the longest question ever asked. The line that will come as a relief to many was "I have absolutely no interest in imperilling the freedom of the press".

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Tom Watson has posted a quick response on his blog to Blair's answers about his resignation. You can read it here:

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Here is a picture of the protester, named as David Lawley-Wakelin, being led away by police.

blair protest

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@ BBCNormanS : TB extolling the virtues of US papers over UK press. Er..but have u read them ? Dullsville Central #leveson #blair

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Blair is comparing the British media to the US media. He says American papers are capable of having a editorial line while at the same time reporting the "facts" as facts.

The collective response from many British journalists on Twitter is to argue that US papers are "dull".

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Blair has moved on to talk about the nature of news in an era of Twitter and 24-hour news channels. He says there is a "race to the bottom" which is damaging to the political debate.

"These guys have got to say something and they just say the same thing they were saying a few moments ago," he observes.

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Blair says one cabinet minister once came to him to resign as he had read in the newspapers that he was going to be sacked.

He says he had to spend half an hour persuading him that he was never going to be fired in the first place.

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Blair says he sometimes made ministers resigned even though they had done nothing wrong as the press coverage was becoming too damaging.

He specifically cites the second time Peter Mandelson was forced to quit the government.

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Tony Blair is asked about Labour MP Tom Watson, who resigned from his government after calling on him to resign.

"I was prime minister, he had effecievely taken part in the coup in 2006 against a prime minister," Blair says.

Blair says Watson resigned "literally moments" before he fired him. "You can't remain a minister if you called for the PM to go"

Blair says that his allies wanted to "go on the attack" but he said he decided he would have to announce when he would leave No.10 in favour of Gordon Brown.

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Blair says The Sun was "out of order" when it published a full scale attack on Gordon Brown for making errors in a letter he wrote to a British soldier killed in Afghanistan.

In January 2009 the tabloid published a picture of a letter in which the-then prime minister referred to the mother of 20-year-old Jamie Janes as "Mrs James".

Giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, said an "incredibly aggressive and angry" Brown had phoned her to complain and that she sympathised with his view.

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Blair is back up and Leveson is apologising to the former PM for the protester.

He said: "Considerable effort has been taken that all witnesses can give evidence in a safe and secure environment, I regret what has happened and an investigation is being undertaken."

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The inquiry has taken a break for an hour now. Don't worry! Blair will be back from 1pm.

So far the former prime minister has reminded us why he was such an effective operator. Smooth as ever he effectively took control of the proceedings, animated hands and all.

His key message was that he did not do any sort of deal with Rupert Murdoch and that while he would have liked to take on the power of the press he wanted to get on with public service reform.

The other point of note was of course the protestor bursting in, something that is likely to grab the headlines.

A interesting sidebar: While the inquiry has been going on Guido Fawkes has posted this fantastic video of the modern Downing Street press operation at work.

Downing Street's Craig Oliver is captured giving the BBC's chief political correspondent a right telling off.

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Back to the substance of the questioning this is the key line that Blair has been pushing all day: "I don't know a policy that we changes as a result of Rupert Murdoch".

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A video has been posted online of the moment the intruder burst into the court. He begins his tirade with the words: "excuse me, this man is a war criminal". How polite.

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Following the disturbance, Lord justice Leveson ordered an immediate inquiry into how the man gained access.

So that's two inquiries he has running now. Busy man.

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@ JoeWatts_ : Blair was fairly astute to get his rebuttal in straight away. There is no doubt that will be a major part of the story tomorrow.

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@ hopisen : The way Blair rebutted then dryly pointed out to Leveson that a politician has to always be aware of how media will report events was meta.

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The demonstrator shouted at Blair accusing him of taking money from the bank JP Morgan to promote the war in Iraq. After being nailed by security he was dragged from the court.

Blair takes a moment to deny the charge that he is a war criminal - unsurprisingly.

A win for Leveson security there. The judge is furious, in his understated way.

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Perhaps it was inevitable. A protestor has burst into the court room: "The man is a war criminal" he shouts before getting bundled out of the room.

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Blair has returned to why he chose not to 'take on' the media upon coming to office.

"I was not going to have the Labour Party coming back into power with a programme of change for the coutnry and having the centre piece to do with media ownership, I thought that would have been a distraction and wrong," he says.

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Blair says new technology such has Twitter has fundamentally changed the way politics works as stories move much quicker.

"The business of politics has become acutely more difficult," he says.

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Blair tells the inquiry that his "minimum objective" in courting the Murdoch press was to stop it from "taring us to pieces" while the maximum was to get its support.

"I did not change our position on core policy issues at all," Blair says.

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Tony Blair says there was " no deal" with Murdoch on media law in the UK "either express or implied".

"To be fair he never sought such a thing," Blair adds.

Previous Labour witnesses including Alastair Campbell, Lord Mandelson and Tessa Jowell have all been quizzed over whether Blair made a deal with Murdoch to pass legislation favoured by News Corp in exchange for favourable press coverage.

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After a short break Blair is back and now the questioning has moved specifically onto the Murdochs.

Blair says that if Murdoch had decided to "wage war" on New Labour then he would have stood up to him.

"If they had started to treat me as they had Neil Kinnock, I would have fought back in a very tough way," he says.

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Blair says he does not think Rupert Murdoch simply backs the winner. He says the media mogul has "very strong political views" which influence which party he decides his papers should support.

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@ tombradby : Like him or loathe him, Blair is a brilliant performer. There is just no one anywhere near as good on the scene these days.

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Blair says that while he was close to Rebekah Brooks during his time as prime minister that was not the crucial relationship as she did not control the editorial line of The Sun (which she edited).

"Bluntly the decision maker was not Rebekah Brooks," he says. It is clear he means Rupert Murdoch was.

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@ politicshomeuk : Blair: sample of 100 Mail stories between 2005-2007 by his office found all 100 were negative coverage. Follow live at

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