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Tony Blair and the BBC

Jonathan Freedland

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You've got to hand it to Rupert Murdoch - he still knows a good story when he hears one. Like any good journalist, his antennae twitch, and he is overwhelmed by the urge to tell the world what he knows. No wonder he was bursting last Friday to tell a New York gathering about his latest confidential chat with Tony Blair. Turns out, he whispered, that while the PM was in India, he had watched BBC World's coverage of Hurricane Katrina. "And," Murdoch explained, "he said it was just full of hate for America and gloating about our troubles."

Of course Murdoch couldn't keep that to himself. For that one little sentence speaks volumes about the British prime minister, about what he believes and where he now stands. It is a gem, worthy of the closest examination.

Start with the central thrust, an attack on the BBC. The David Kelly affair dominated British politics for so long chiefly because it opened up a desperately needed debate about the honesty of the war on Iraq. But it also touched on another live rail that runs through our public life: the independence of a publicly funded broadcaster.

The BBC took a hammering from Lord Hutton, losing its two top people as a result, yet polling showed that it retained the public trust. Downing Street had won the battle, yet oddly it had lost the war; one post-Hutton survey found that two in three Britons trusted the BBC, while less than a third of them had faith in the government. That was partly a verdict on the BBC's general performance, but it was also, surely, a statement of principle. People want a broadcaster rigorously independent of the state, one that will stand up to the politicians when the moment demands.

Blair's remark to Murdoch shows he does not understand that simple point. He is still playing a game Downing Street should have given up after Hutton: seeking to intimidate the BBC into changing its editorial line.

The fact that BBC bias was on Blair's mind at all is the second striking aspect of Murdoch's indiscretion. What does it say about Blair that his prime reaction to seeing the images of despair and suffering from New Orleans was not to wonder about the state of modern America but to rage against the BBC? How refreshing it would have been if Blair had shared with Murdoch, privately of course, his concern that a society so rich had done so little for its poor. Or his shock that a technological and military superpower could be so slow to save its own. Or his disappointment that Hurricane Katrina's victims seemed to have been colour-coded, that those who managed to get away were white, while those left waving from rooftops or floating, lifeless, in the floodwater were black.

But no. This was not what made Blair shake his head in fury in his Delhi hotel room. What he saw on the BBC appalled him all right, but his ire was stirred by the messenger, not the message.

It was left to Bill Clinton, Rupert's host, to subtly point out Blair's error. Not for the first time, he offered a remark that sounded like a defence of Blair but that, on closer inspection, made clear his disagreement with him. (The ex-president has done the same on Iraq.) He said he too had seen the specific report the PM had apparently referred to but had found "nothing factually inaccurate" in it. Still, he admitted, it was "almost exclusively" designed to criticise the Bush administration's response to the crisis.

See the difference? Blair, as summarised by Murdoch (and Downing Street has not disputed his account), accuses the BBC of hatred of America. Clinton accuses the BBC of excessive criticism of the current US administration. That is a huge distinction, the same one cited in their defence by countless critics of the Iraq war. Their objection is not to America itself, but to this specific US government. Their stance is anti-Bush, anti-Republican perhaps, but not anti-American. Clinton can see that. Blair cannot. He believes that if you are outraged by Bush's lethargy in the face of a terrible catastrophe, then you are "full of hate for America" and gloat at its troubles. In fact, the opposite is true.

But let's not overlook one of the key aspects of Blair's attack on the BBC - the fact that he voiced it to Rupert Murdoch. There is a political pander here, which is no crime but hardly edifying to contemplate. To state the obvious, Murdoch is a global broadcaster who has long had the BBC in his sights. He despises all it represents, starting with its status as a public, rather than commercial, organisation. It is a direct rival. By slating the BBC, Blair was tickling Rupert, hoping, perhaps, that the tycoon would see the PM as an ally.

This deference to Murdoch, we know, is not new. The memoirs of the former spin operative Lance Price, before they were purged, reveal that Labour "promised News International we won't make any changes to our Europe policy without talking to them". It's worth remembering that one of the early accusations of Downing Street dishonesty in which Alastair Campbell was caught out was his 1998 denial to the lobby of the claim that Blair had intervened with the then Italian prime minister Romano Prodi on behalf of Murdoch. Campbell called the claim "a complete joke" and "crap" before having to admit that, er, the two leaders had discussed the matter after all. Murdoch was indiscreet on that occasion, too, confessing that Blair's report back on his call with Prodi had led him to change his business plans. He was clearly grateful.

So we know that Blair is solicitous to Murdoch, to the point of subservience. That is all of a piece with a choice of friends that includes Silvio Berlusconi, the ousted the Spanish conservative José Maria Aznar and, lest we forget, George Bush. How dearly Blair wanted to add Angela Merkel to that list, his aides briefing anyone who would listen that Gerhard Schröder was history and that Merkel would carry the Blairite torch in Berlin.

Therefore we owe Murdoch a great debt. He has given us a single sentence that says so much. It reveals a Labour prime minister whose every instinct is at odds with the movement he leads. The BBC or Fox News? He chooses Fox. The victims of Katrina or the Bush White House? His sympathies go to the White House. German Social Democrat or the Prussian Thatcher? He chooses Thatcher.

This is Tony Blair, utterly out of step with the party he has led for 11 years. There is no outrage, just a shrug of the shoulders. Next week at the party conference he will get a standing ovation, as out of reach as an American second-term president - there is no realistic way of getting rid of him. Instead Labour will just wait for the day he goes, off to meet his inevitable destiny - the US lecture circuit - to earn millions and eat fine dinners with the Kissingers and Murdochs, the Berlusconis and Bushes, who are for him what Labour never was: his natural home.


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I listen to the BBC most days and prefer it to any other source. In San Francisco I listen to NBC News (owned by General Electric Corp), hear local radio and TV as well as read the local Chronicle, a Hearst Corporation paper. All the latter accept George Bush's infamous lie "War on Terror" cry, connecting it with Iraq. It is an interesting commentary on San Francisco, America's most progressive town, that all our American information sources are corporate and far right. Jack Ragsdale

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