Tony Blair’s appearance at Leveson: 10 key points

The former PM on media regulation, his relationship with Murdoch and the Daily Mail.

1. Blair denies ever doing a deal with Rupert Murdoch

Asked whether he knew anything of a supposed deal between Murdoch and David Cameron, Blair said he had “no knowledge” of such a deal. He added: "All I can say is Murdoch never made such an approach to me.”

2. Blair says that Murdoch did not lobby him on media policy

The former prime minister said that Murdoch “didn’t lobby me on media stuff” but said that this was “not to say we weren’t aware of the positions their companies had”. These included strong views against European integration. He added that on regulatory matters that had a direct impact on Murdoch’s business, “we decided more often against than in favour”. He added:

Am I saying he's not a powerful figure in the media? Well no, of course he is, and, of course you're aware of what his views are, and that's why I say part of my job was to manage the situation so that you didn't get into a situation where you were shifting policy.

3. He and Murdoch clashed over Europe. . .

This has already been widely reported, but Blair stressed that he and Murdoch disagreed over Europe. He said:

Europe was the major thing that he and I used to row about. I believed in what I was doing, I didn't need him or anyone else to tell me what to do.

As evidence that he had not changed policy for Murdoch, he said:

I would say very strongly we managed the position that I believed in on Europe and that was a position the Sun and the News of the World frequently disagreed with me on.

4. . . But agree on many other things

Blair stressed that on public service reform and trade unions, he and Murdoch happened to agree:

Our views may have coincided. But I believed what I was doing. I did not need him to tell me what to do.

5. Blair sent Rebekah Brooks a supportive message after she resigned

The former prime minister revealed that he sent a sympathetic text message to the former News International chief executive after she was forced to step down last year over phone hacking allegations. He told the inquiry: "I'm somebody who does not believe in being a fairweather friend”. He said that he did not know the facts, but that he felt sorry for Brooks. "I have seen people go through these situations, and I know what it's like”.

6. Murdoch and Blair are closer now than when he was in office

Blair confirmed that he is the godfather of Murdoch’s daughter for the first time (even though the story broke some months ago). He said that while he was in office, he had a “working relationship” with Murdoch, but now it was “completely different”:

I would not have been godfather to one of his children on the basis of my relationship in office. After I left office I got to know him. Now it's different. It's not the same.

He spoke warmly about his friend, saying that the media baron was “not a tribal Tory” who had certain views that were “very anti-establishment”.

7. He does not regret New Labour’s media obsession

Though his government has been demonised and caricatured for it’s obsessive chasing of positive headlines, Blair said that he has no regrets. Stressing the immense power of the press – across the board, not just limited to the Murdochs’ businesses – he said that implementing reform would have derailed his entire policy agenda.

This would have been an absolute, major confrontation, you would have had virtually every part of the media against you in doing it. And I felt the price you would pay for that would actually push out a lot of the things I cared more about. Although I think this is an immensely important question, I don't in the end, not for me, at any rate, as prime minister, was it more important than the health service, or schools or law and order.

8. Anti-war protesters look set to follow Blair wherever he goes

As I reported earlier, a man interrupted the morning proceedings to shout “this man is a war criminal”.

9.Blair denies ever briefing against colleagues

In what some have interpreted as a veiled comment on Gordon Brown, Blair said twice that he never asked the Sun to attack his enemies:

I did never and would never have asked her or others to conduct attacks on specific individual ... I absolutely hate that type of politics.

He specifically denied claims that No 10 briefed against Mo Mowlam.

10. Blair hates the Daily Mail

While he defended the Murdoch press, Blair had strong words about the Daily Mail:

If you fall out with the controlling element of the Daily Mail, you are then going to be subject to a huge and sustained attack. So, the Daily Mail for me - it attacked me, my family, my children, those people associated with me - day in, day out. Not merely when I was in office. And they do it very well, very effectively. And it's very powerful.

He said that the paper had a “personal vendetta” against his wife Cherie, and that her solicitors sent at least 30 legal warnings to the newspaper between mid-2006 and November 2011.
 

Tony Blair leaves the Royal Courts of Justice. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt