The Leveson inquiry on media ethics chaired by Lord Justice Leveson and spearheaded by the Arctic cool Robert Jay QC keeps humming along, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is the latest star in its procession to be questioned. There was anticipation – this, the man Rupert Murdoch favoured in a dramatic turnaround in the 1997 elections; this individual, who has been both the bane and passion of the British left for years, the head of the insidious mutation that came to be called New Labour. He has been wanted for war crimes; he has been unscrupulous on the lecture and envoy circuit, eager to squeeze penny and buck out of every engagement he can find. Indeed, Blair, along with his wife, has become something of a public relations brand.
The press were impressed by the way he handled the less than penetrating questions from Jay. Some almost fell for his performance. “If I had not lived through the Blair years and see the way in which newspapers were manipulated and sometimes lied to by his formidable Press machine”, wrote a miffed Stephen Glover for the customarily odious Daily Mail (May 28), “I might have been persuaded by this suave performance.”
Polly Toynbee’s note in the Guardian (May 28) was even sympathetic, bedazzled as she was by Blair as a true practitioner of realpolitik. “Here was the all-time winner, clever, engaging and frank about what he did to navigate the hostile media seas.” No, Blair was, after all, a man of the left, despite the sneers that he was merely a Tory Plan B, a conservative politician in Labour drag. “Here was a strong reminder of all the perennial dilemmas Labour faces in trying to be heard above the massed foghorns of the right.”
Blair’s tenure at No 10 was a hypnotic one when it came to the press. He toyed with them. He described his method, in part, to Justice Brian Leveson. “I took a strategic decision to manage these people, not confront them. I didn’t say that I feared them… (but) had you decided to confront them, everything would have been pushed to the side. It would have been a huge battle with no guarantee of winning.”
Win, he did. Through the dark and sinister ministry of his Iago-like advisor Alastair Campbell, he pampered the press with Shakespearean weightiness just as they produced the fluffy gibberish they thought the public wanted. The late Princess Diana’s sanctification by media as the “people’s princess” was the most notable achievement. ‘Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls.’ Such is the nature of Iago’s advice.
The press obliged him. He gave them what they wanted. When the juice started running dry in the samples, when the acting seemed a bit too hammed, and the body bags starting to come back from such bloody adventures as Afghanistan and Iraq, the press were not too sure anymore. Blair’s greatest and most catastrophic legacy in terms of the press was to expose its viability to manipulation in democracy. He corroded an institution just as he was using it.
Blair sought to paint a picture of papers gone mad, a media powerful and unruly to the point of being ‘feral’. Murdoch chumminess, not to mention family ties, was excluded from discussion. The fourth estate, he claimed, exerted undue pressure on him into a second sacking of Peter Mandelson from the Cabinet in 2001. Those inquisitive scribblers harangued his wife Cherie Blair, though he tiptoed around the reasons why his wife might have been appealing to begin with – a questionable business relationship with the convicted confidence trickster by the name of Peter Foster. Foster’s handiwork enabled Cherie to get a discount of 70,000 pounds on two Bristol flats. Hardly small beer for someone in No. 10.
Indeed, there were a few large spots the inquiry might well have taken aim at. Blair should have been questioned intensely over Campbell’s role in such matters as the September 2002 dossier on Iraq that painted Saddam Hussein as a global force of terror whose mania could reach Britain. The second dossier, one of pure fantasy derived from the work of a dated doctoral thesis, barely got a mention. Jay, who had at least shown a bit more mettle when it came to questioning Murdoch, seemed almost tepid. The true performer was, as it has been so often, Blair.
It might well be said that Blair was something of a ventriloquist, one who took Britain to war on the coattails of a fundamentalist American president. He invented press compliance in a modern democracy, encouraged colossal laziness on the part of reporters who preferred his press secretary’s briefings to critique and investigation. The inquiry has, however, made us none the wiser on his dubious relationship with the British press. One might not be able to bribe, thank God, the British journalist, but persuasion should never be ruled out.