Former British prime minister Tony Blair has denied being too close to Rupert Murdoch, as the Leveson media ethics inquiry took a dramatic turn overnight.Former British prime minister Tony Blair has denied being too close to Rupert Murdoch, as the Leveson inquiry into media ethics took a dramatic turn overnight.Security guards were forced to intervene at one point during Mr Blair’s evidence, when a protester burst into the courtroom and accused him of being a war criminal.
In a moment reminiscent of a cream pie attack on Mr Murdoch before a parliamentary committee last year, David Lawley-Walkin, a freelance documentary film-maker, appeared from behing Lord Leveson’s bench shouting: “This man should be arrested for war crimes! JP Morgan paid him off for the Iraq war. Three months after we invaded Iraq, he held up the Iraq bank for £20 million. He was then paid $6 million every year, and still is, from JP Morgan, six months after he left office. The man is a war criminal!”
Mr Lawley-Walkin was bundled out of the room by guards, with Lord Justice Leveson ordering an investigation into the security breach. Mr Lawley-Walkin later told the Guardian he had made his way into the courtroom unchallenged via a back staircase.
“I thought, I’m not going to be able to do this. I nearly gave up, in fact. But when I figured out a way through it was fairly straightforward,” he was quoted as saying, telling the newspaper he had later been handed over to police but had been released without charge.
For his part, Mr Blair said the accusations of payment from JP Morgan were completely untrue: “I’ve never had discussion with them about that [Iraq].”
(Financial services firm JP Morgan Chase was appointed to operate a US-created bank in Iraq to manage billions of dollars in imports and exports from the oil-rich nation).In his evidence, Mr Blair told the inquiry that Rupert Murdoch had not lobbied him over media policy and that there was no “implied deal” between them.
“There was no deal on issues to do with the media with Rupert Murdoch or, indeed, anybody else, either express or implied. And to be fair, he never sought such a thing,” Mr Blair said.
“Was I aware he had certain interests and was I aware the media as a whole had a strong interest in us not legislating on the media? Absolutely.”
Mr Blair said he never felt under any pressure to help with the commercial interests of the Murdochs or any other media proprietors: “We decided more stuff against Murdoch interests than in favour of it. Did that mean they changed their support for me? No, it didn’t, in fact. Even though there were things they really didn’t like.”
Asked whether he got too close to News International, Mr Blair said he became closer to Mr Murdoch after he left office, which is when he became godfather to one of Mr Murdoch’s children.”The relationship became a lot easier and better? I would never have become godfather to one of the children [while I was Prime Minister].”
On whether he got too close to former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, he said that towards the end of his time in office he needed all the friends he could get but “to put it bluntly, the decision-maker was not Rebekah Brooks ?. It was Rupert Murdoch, for sure”.Mr Blair acknowledged that he sent Mrs Brooks a message of sympathy after she was forced to resign over the phone-hacking scandal last year: “I am somebody who doesn’t believe in being a fair-weather friend and certainly I said I was sorry for what happened to her.”Mr Blair had earlier confirmed to the inquiry that he had three phone calls with Mr Murdoch in the run-up to the Iraq war in March 2003.Mr Blair had initiated one of the calls: “I would have been wanting to explain what we were doing. I think I had similar calls with the Observer and the Telegraph?”Probably I would have been asking him what the situation was in the US and Australia, which were part of the coalition [of countries willing to join the US intervention in Iraq]. But no, I wouldn’t have asked him about press coverage.”Mr Blair denied a claim from a former aide that Mr Murdoch had been “the 24th member” of his cabinet and denied that Mr Murdoch had been promised he would be informed any impending policy changes in some areas. The former prime minister also attacked the British press, which he had once called a “feral beast”, over the way some elements of it had waged “a personal vendetta” against his wife, Cherie. He said she had contacted lawyers more than 30 times over articles that had been written about her.”I thought and I do think that the attacks on her and my children were unnecessary and wrong. I just don’t think it is part of the political debate? What I think is wrong is where sections of the media? [have] powerful people say, ‘Right, we are going to go for that person.’”And then what happens is they go for you? it’s full-on, full-frontal. That’s not journalism. In my view, it’s an abuse of power.”Lord Justice Leveson gave an insight into what he might recommend at the end of the inquiry into press practices. He told Mr Blair there needed to be a stronger press complaints system that was fast, effective and cheap for victims to access. He also thought that editors considering an expose on an individual could seek the advice of a panel on whether to notify the subject of the story before publication. Editors could be free to ignore any advice to notify, but if they did, they might risk exemplary damages in any subsequent court case, Justice Leveson said.
First published at theage.com.au on 5 May 2012.