Blair refuses to distance himself from Murdoch

The former PM avoided any criticism of the Murdochs at a press conference in Australia.

Tony Blair has been talking at length about the phone hacking scandal and the Murdochs for the first time since the Milly Dowler story broke. Appearing at a joint press conference with Australian prime minister Julia Gillard in Murdoch's homeland, Blair was asked if he thought "the Murdochs themselves should be held responsible."

He replied:

Look, I think there's going to be several inquiries that are underway in the UK now. I think all of these issues are going to be gone into in depth, which they should. Obviously what happened in relation to the hacking was pretty despicable, what happened there, but as I think both the Murdochs said when they went to the select committee in the House of Commons, you know, they take responsibility for that [emphasis mine] and it's important that we now get to the bottom of what has happened and work out a right way of trying to get these relationships on a sound footing for the future.

In fact, contrary to Blair, Rupert Murdoch did not take responsibility for the hacking scandal at the select committee hearing last week. He told MPs: "I do not accept ultimate responsibility. I hold responsible the people that I trusted to run it and the people they trusted."

It was that startling complacency that prompted Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, to attack Murdoch's "complete denial of any responsibility of his organisation".

Blair was also asked whether he had received any assurances that his phone wasn't hacked, he replied:

I actually, well when I was Prime Minister of the UK I never had a mobile phone, which nowadays I think was a real advantage for me, so I've never thought that it's possible that I would be but I honestly have no idea.

But perhaps the most notable thing about the press conference was Blair's refusal to distance himself from the Murdoch empire. He would not comment on the failed BSkyB bid and when asked if Rupert Murdoch should step aside, replied:

Look, I think everyone agrees the hacking of that poor girl's phone was despicable, I don't think there's anybody who would dispute that - including the Murdochs, by the way - but what happens to News International is a matter for them.

Note the way that he inserts, "including the Murdochs, by the way", as if to legitimise his criticism of the Dowler hacking. He feels comfortable describing it as "despicable" because the Murdochs have used similar language themselves.

Finally, here's how Blair responded when asked if Murdoch entered Downing Street by the front door or the back door: "I can't honestly remember."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496