Ex-PM Blair faces grilling over Murdoch ties

Tony Blair's decision to openly court Rupert Murdoch to win power and ensure favourable coverage during his decade-long tenure as British prime minister will come under scrutiny when he faces a media inquiry today.

The inquiry, ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron after Murdoch's now defunct News of the World tabloid admitted hacking phones, has tarnished Britain's elite by laying bare the collusion between politicians, the police and the media.

Blair kicks off an important week at the Leveson inquiry by answering questions about his often obsessive media management which included courting Murdoch.

The inquiry has so far focused on the conduct of the media and the close ties between Murdoch's empire and serving ministers, helping the opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband consolidate his position with attacks on Cameron.

But the grilling of Blair, who recast the relationship between the media and politicians by "spinning" news to gain the most favourable coverage, could undermine Miliband's attempt to portray Labour as a party above courting media tycoons.

While Blair is no longer active in British politics, the inquiry may still prove uncomfortable as it examines issues such as his decision after stepping down as prime minister to become a godfather to Murdoch's daughter Grace at a ceremony on the banks of the river Jordan.

"Blair led the way in having no shame about courting Murdoch," said Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at City university.

"He set the style and the standard and if you regard Cameron as the 'heir to Blair' then it's not exactly surprising that he followed suit."

Murdoch told the inquiry last month that he had never asked a prime minister for anything.

Blair set the tone for his relationship with Britain's press when he flew to Australia in 1995 to speak before a gathering of Murdoch's executives who had previously used their British tabloids to vilify his Labour Party predecessors.

The decision infuriated much of his left-of-centre party who saw the Australian-born tycoon as a right-winger who had helped to keep them out of power for years.

"People would be horrified," Blair said later in his autobiography. "On the other hand ... not to go was to say carry on and do your worst, and we knew their worst was very bad indeed."

"The country's most powerful newspaper proprietor, whose publications have hitherto been rancorous in their opposition to the Labour party, invites us into the lion's den. You go, don't you?"

The speech received a standing ovation and Murdoch indicated for the first time that he could be willing to switch the allegiance of his newspapers to the Labour Party.

"If our flirtation is ever consummated Tony then I suspect we will end up making love like porcupines, very, very carefully," he told him.

With the backing of Murdoch's top-selling Sun tabloid, Blair swept to power in 1997 and again in 2001 and 2005. But with an ever increasing reputation for public relations "spin", he started to face questions over his sincerity.

"Tony Blair quickly became famous in Fleet Street for inviting in one group of newspaper people and telling them how sceptical he was about Europe; and then inviting in another lot and telling them how keen he was on Europe," Andrew Marr, a senior BBC journalist, told the inquiry.

"But the different groups compared notes, and his reputation was not hugely enhanced."

Much of that came to a head when Blair and then U.S. President George W. Bush agreed to invade Iraq, going against the public opinion in Britain.

Blair is likely to be asked why he spoke to Murdoch three times in the days leading up to the Iraq war and whether this had any impact on the fact that all Murdoch's papers supported the unpopular invasion.

He will also be asked whether his reliance on Britain's press meant that he did not properly scrutinise their role in society and whether any group, such as Murdoch's News International, had too much control of the market.

"There was a desperation to get the Sun onside and to get News International on side, basically at all costs," Liverpool University's political professor Jonathan Tonge, told Reuters. "And if that meant sacrificing a serious analysis of the relationship and the health of the relationship, then so be it."

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