Watching Tony Blair appear this week before the British judicial inquiry into press standards in London has left me feeling a little queasy. What began as an open-minded investigation into how to protect individuals from the snooping of the press in the age of the Internet has turned into a show trial to shame politicians who fell under the spell of Rupert Murdoch.
Now, heaven knows, I’m no apologist for Murdoch. His cynical approach to his readers and viewers and employees belies the fact that he is descended from sternly moral Scottish Presbyterians. He declares that the buck stops with a newspaper owner when one of his papers or journalists or printers fouls up, but when widespread illegality happens in his name, right under his nose, he forgets his fine words and lets it be known he has no intention of stepping down from his dual role of CEO and chairman of News Corp.
But I can’t help thinking that there is an unattractive element of hypocrisy when hearings into the intimidation of politicians by Murdoch and his henchmen end up as a means of intimidating politicians into confessing they were in cahoots with Murdoch. Blair was honest with Justice Leveson about the tacit deal he did so that Murdoch’s tabloids would not trash him as they had done his predecessor as Labour leader, Neil Kinnock.
Explaining why he agreed to fly halfway round the world to appear as the star turn at a News Corp. executives’ retreat, an action that inevitably sparked suggestions he had entered a Faustian pact with Murdoch to go easy on press regulation in exchange for support in the 1997 election, Blair said: “The minimum objective was to stop them tearing us to pieces and the maximum objective was, if possible, to open the way to support.” There was no specific deal, Blair said, because no deal was necessary. He needed Murdoch to win in a landslide, and Murdoch needed him to back off from interfering with his business.
Blair was treated with enormous respect by the judge, as is the English way, but there is still something discomforting about the whole venture. Blair is the biggest fish to have swum into Leveson’s net so far, though the current prime minister, David Cameron, is also scheduled to appear. Cameron hired Andy Coulson, chief editor of the defunct News of the World who presided over phone hacking of the murdered schoolgirl that set off the hue and cry against Murdoch in the first place.