Tony Blair has been talking for the first time since the hacking scandal erupted three weeks ago about his relationship with the Murdoch family, something that has been much criticised in the Commons recently.
Speaking at a press conference in Australia, of all places, Blair said:
Look, let’s be honest about it. The problem is when you’re a political leader, never mind a prime minister, you get your message across, you have to get your message across, through you guys [journalists], so whatever I say today the whole of the public’s not going to be watching every word I say. What happens is you will write about it, or you’ll put it on your television and you know, therefore of course it’s going to matter to have relationships with people in the media.
But I think one thing that is very important is to try and get those relationships right in the sense that the media is an important part of our democracy, on the other hand governments should govern for the public interest.
So what does the former PM think should be done from here on media regulation?
I think the key thing is the distinction between news and comment, you know, and if you have that distinction clear then it’s easier for you to have a relationship that is acceptable with the media people because they’re powerful people within society, but in circumstances where you don’t feel that those media outlets are going to be used as instruments of policy but they essentially remain instruments of news.
Alastair Campbell was on Channel 4′s Dispatches last night saying that he feared that if Blair had not announced a U-turn on the referendum on the European constitution, News International titles would have “poisoned the debate” on Europe with the tone of their coverage. The feeling from the Blair-camp seems to be that they could deal with robust and even biased comment, but the slanting of the news agenda was much more difficult to counteract.
But his answer is also a typically skilful one – at a time when politicians are rushing to disown themselves from the Murdoch empire and attacking any colleague who has been too close in the past, Blair tries to turn the debate into a technical point about the media.
And were there any “backdoor meetings” between Rupert and Tony while the latter was in Number 10?
I can’t honestly remember.