By a Newsnet reporter
Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell has denied that the former Labour Prime Minister’s office negotiated any deal with media tycoon Rupert Murdoch in return for support from newspapers like the Sun.
Appearing before the Leveson Inquiry on Monday, Mr Campbell admitted that Labour worked hard to court Mr Murdoch in order to help promote Labour’s message and confirmed that the then Labour leader had met with Mr Murdoch officially on numerous occasions, but denied knowledge of any deal.
Mr Campbell also revealed that in 2003 in the run up to the Iraq conflict, the Prime Minister had fielded three phone calls from the media mogul. The Sun newspaper subsequently carried the headline “Brits 45 Mins from Doom”, a claim that was pivotal in the battle to gain support for the UK’s involvement in what many believed was an illegal invasion.
However in perhaps the most damning admission, Mr Campbell acknowledged that within a few years of winning the 1997 election, the highest levels of the Labour Government were already aware of serious issues around the relationship between press and politicians but failed to take any action to address them.
Robert Jay, lead counsel to the inquiry, asked Mr Campbell whether he and Mr Blair had set out to win over Mr Murdoch when Labour was in opposition during the mid-1990s. “Absolutely,” replied Mr Campbell, “Murdoch was the single most important media figure. It would have been foolish on our part not to build some sort of relationship with him.”
Mr Blair had even gone so far as to attend a News Corportation conference on Hayman Island in Australia, a visit criticised at the time as evidence of the way in which the British political classes prostrated themselves before the media mogul. “I was never in doubt that it was a good thing to do,” opined Mr Campbell.
However he strongly denied that there was ever any deal between the highest levels of the Labour party and Mr Murdoch and his representatives in order that the Sun newspaper switch allegiance to Labour. Mr Campbell said: “The Labour party for some years had nothing to do with Murdoch papers whatsoever, we made an active choice to change that approach.”
He added: “I never was witness to, and I don’t believe there was ever a discussion that said, ‘now, Tony, if you do this and do this and do this my papers will back you’ – it just never happened. I believe Blair went through these issues on their merits… [there were] lots of areas you’d be hard-pressed to say the Murdochs were getting good business out of the Labour government.”
Robert Jay asked Mr Campbell about three phonecalls made between Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch in the weeks before the Iraq invasion was launched in March 2003. Mr Campbell denied that the UK government could not have pursued its Iraq policy without the backing of Mr Murdoch’s newspapers, calling such a view “complete nonsense”.
Chair of the inquiry Justice Levenson then asked Mr Campbell why Mr Blair had made time for the calls during what was a frenetic period of diplomatic activity and military planning. Mr Campbell replied that Rupert Murdoch was a “very significant figure in the media landscape”.
“Most of the media were upset about what we were doing and Murdoch’s titles were in favour of what we were doing.
“The Prime Minister would have appreciated the support at the time. This was the most difficult decision he had to make, certainly in the time I was with him.”
Mr Campbell went on to say that he would not “overstate the significance” of the calls and added:
“What I think was going on is that Rupert Murdoch has placed a call and Tony Blair has taken that call, and Rupert Murdoch is just wanting to have a chat about what is going on.
“Rupert Murdoch, one of the things that makes him different to some of the other media owners, some of whom you saw last week, is that he is a news man. He is interested in what is going on in the world.
“I think it is a combination of Rupert Murdoch trying to find out what is going on and also probably saying, ‘You know, we’re going to support you on this.’
“It doesn’t strike me as that odd, not least because by then I think it is fair to say Tony Blair had very few strong supporters in the media left.”
Mr Campbell claimed that he and Mr Blair sometimes felt “distaste” when dealing with Mr Murdoch.
While he was Prime Minister, Tony Blair met officially with Mr Murdoch 31 times. This figure does not include Mr Blair’s meetings with other figures from News International, including Mr Murdoch’s son James and Rebecca Brooks (then known as Rebecca Wade), who he is known to have dined with alone on at least three occasions. Neither does it include telephone conversations or other communications between the pair or their close associates.
By 2010 Mr Blair had apparently recovered from any previous distaste and developed such a close relationship with Mr Murdoch and his family that the former Labour leader became godfather to Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Grace, the second youngest of his six children.
Campbell said that Blair and other members of the Labour government had long believed there was a “real problem” in the relationship between the press and politicians and that the problems had become obvious after Labour had been in power for a couple of years.
However Mr Campbell admitted that no action was taken to address these issues even though they had by then become apparent at the highest levels of the Labour government. “I think there was a political point of pragmatism that Tony Blair would have taken the view that it was not politically sensible,” he said. “It is no secret that this was one of the few things that we argued about.”
He added: “He was further of the view that whereas it was possible to fight and win elections and to govern with consensus with some of the media offside, to seek to do so with all of them offside and in kill mode is very difficult indeed.”
Mr Jay then asked Mr Campbell whether the current government under David Cameron has the political will to regulate the press better, Mr Campbell replied: “No, if I’m being frank… I don’t think there is much of an appetite. I think there is some appetite for a cross-party approach but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of politicians looking to see how this might affect their positioning vis-a-vis the next election. There is some appetite for change but I wouldn’t overstate it.”
He continued: “I don’t think that David Cameron particularly wants to have to deal with this. I don’t think he wanted to set up the inquiry. He had to in the end.
“I think it will be very difficult for him not to go along with whatever recommendations – or at least a very large part of the recommendations – the inquiry produces. But I don’t think there’s much of an appetite.”
Mr Campbell also said he believed the recent support expressed by Rupert Murdoch for the Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond was in part an act of ‘revenge’ for Mr Cameron’s decision to order Leveson Inquiry.