LONDON — Former Prime Minister Tony Blair testified Monday that he never challenged the influential British press because doing so would have plunged his administration in a drawn-out and politically damaging fight.
Blair led Britain from 1997 to 2007, and his Labour Party government has been criticized by many — including some of Blair's former colleagues — as having an unhealthy relationship with the country's press.
Blair, speaking under oath at an inquiry into media ethics, said the issue wasn't that he and Britain's journalistic elite were too cozy, but that he had to tread carefully where press barons were concerned.
"I took a strategic decision to manage these people, not confront them," he told Lord Justice Brian Leveson, who is leading the inquiry. "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."
Leveson's inquiry was set up following revelations of phone hacking at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, a scandal which has rocked the British establishment and raised questions about whether top politicians helped shield Murdoch — and the media in general — from official scrutiny.
Blair's time in office was marked by unusually strong ties between Blair's left-wing Labour Party and Murdoch's News Corp. — a company whose holdings include the populist The Sun newspaper and the right-wing Fox News network.
Blair became a godfather to one of Murdoch's children and his government has since been described by several colleagues as having been too close to the media mogul.
The former prime minister made no apologies for courting Murdoch, saying he was just one of several media tycoons who could make life difficult if they weren't happy with a position he was taking.
But he denied doing any kind of deal with Murdoch, "either express or implied."
Blair's testimony was briefly interrupted when a heckler burst in through a secure corridor behind Leveson, shouting: "This man should be arrested for war crimes!" before being removed by security.
Leveson, looking ruffled, said he would investigate how the man managed to sneak in to the secured zone.
Blair's government had an up-and-down relationship with many media organizations, basking in the glow of public adulation following his landslide 1997 victory and enduring increasingly caustic criticism following his deeply unpopular decision to invade Iraq alongside then-U.S. President George W. Bush.
Blair's senior lieutenants developed a reputation for bullying, manipulation, and "spin" — something Blair decried as an oft-repeated myth.
Still, he acknowledged that politics and media had become "far more rude and brutal — and in a sense crude — in its interaction."
Blair's appearance kicked off an important week at the judge-led inquiry. Several senior politicians have appeared at the investigation set up last year when it emerged that reporters at the Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid had routinely hacked into the phones of public figure and crime victims.
The scandal has rocked Britain's establishment, leading to the arrest or resignation of dozens of journalists, media executives, political operatives and police, prison and military officials. It's also exposed a pattern of wrongdoing across the British press, from bribery to blackmail.
The investigation continues: As Blair was testifying, police said they'd arrested a 42-year-old woman on suspicion of money laundering offenses linked to the hacking scandal.
Leveson is examining whether politicians failed to get a handle on the lawlessness at the News of the World and other papers because they were too close to the media — or too scared of it.
Current ministers including Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Education Minister Michael Gove and Home Secretary Theresa May will also testify this week.