TranscriptLEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: One of the factors credited with helping Tony Blair become British Prime Minister back in 1997 was that he managed to get the Murdoch press onside.
In the wake of the UK phone hacking scandal, with serious questions being asked about the relationship between politicians and the media, is Tony Blair comfortable with the way he courted the press while he was in office?
Mr Blair's currently in Australia on a speaking tour and I spoke to him in Melbourne earlier today.
Tony Blair, welcome to the program.
TONY BLAIR, FORMER BRITISH PM: Thankyou.
LEIGH SALES: If we could start with the phone hacking scandal in the UK: does the scale of what's gone on surprise you?
TONY BLAIR: It's a little difficult to answer that, 'cause at one level, no, frankly, 'cause I think a lot of us have known there's something pretty badly wrong with some of the practices over a long period of time. But on the other hand, I think the individual circumstances have been shocking. And it's quite rightly and naturally caused not just a big storm, but a desire to make sure that there are some rules are put in place, some standards put in place so that whether it's hacking or it's impersonation or breaches of the Data Protection Act, these things stop.
LEIGH SALES: You didn't have a mobile phone when you were Prime Minister. Was that a deliberate decision in terms of the security of your communications?
TONY BLAIR: Um, in part it was. Although nothing to do with sort of phone hacking. But, in part, frankly, for leaders if you - if people start getting hold of your mobile phone number, your line tends to get a bit busy. So actually I only got a mobile phone the day after I left being Prime Minister.
LEIGH SALES: What about - are you worried about your family members having been hacked, obviously senior advisors? It's very hard to imagine that people like that wouldn't have been targets.
TONY BLAIR: Yes, I think it's perfectly possible. But the police are gonna go into all of this and look at it now and I think it'll sort itself out, I hope.
LEIGH SALES: You said that - I forget your exact words, sorry, but that you were sort uncomfortable with some of the practices that had gone on. What were some of the things when you were Prime Minister in terms of the practices that made you uncomfortable?
TONY BLAIR: I think what I was really referring to it is that I think it is uncomfortable if you're a political leader and have to have this very close relationship with media people. You know, the media and politicians are always gonna be in a bit of tension with one another and probably most of the time that's healthy and indeed even creative. But it's where - it's really when news organisations are used as kind of instruments of politics that it gets tricky. And then, you know, frankly, you're a politician, you've gotta communicate, the only way you communicate is through the media. So you can't expect us not to have relationships with people who are powerful carriers of message. But I think what would make it a lot more healthy is if we go back to the basic principle which is the distinction between news and comment.
LEIGH SALES: Rupert Murdoch gave the impression before that hearing last week that he was a bit one step removed from the day-to-day running of his newspapers, if you like. Was that your experience when you were Prime Minister?
TONY BLAIR: Yeah. I mean, I think when you're the owner of a major organisation like that, you're not gonna be on top of everything that's happening there. And ...
LEIGH SALES: But did you believe Rupert Murdoch, though, was personally directing coverage of you and of your government?
TONY BLAIR: Well, all of the media - you see, one of the things that I think's really important, because News International have been singled out in this. I mean, I've dealt with the British media for a long period of time, so the notion that you got this Murdoch empire here and these lovely, cuddly other sweet people there - not quite.
LEIGH SALES: The current British Labour leader Ed Miliband believes that his predecessors in the role, you and Gordon Brown, grew too close to News International executives and other media proprietors. Do you accept that criticism?
TONY BLAIR: Um, look, you know, I described the level of comfort I had sometimes with the relationship with all of these media guys. You know, once this thing happens and it blows into this huge scandal, then of course everyone says, "Oh, my goodness, it's terrible." But I think, realistically, look, when I became leader of the Labour Party, we'd lost four elections in a row. You know, getting - it wasn't just we'd fallen out with the Murdoch media; we'd fallen out with virtually all of it that wasn't absolutely clearly on the left. So, I set about ...
LEIGH SALES: So you had to court them?
TONY BLAIR: Well I set about changing that, because otherwise you can't get your message across.
LEIGH SALES: Well you raised some eyebrows in I think 1995 because you went to News Corporation's conference on Hayman Island. Why did you decide - you know, there were people that were unhappy in your party that you did that. Why did you decide to go into the lion's den, if you like?
TONY BLAIR: Because - for a bigger reason, really, than Rupert Murdoch or News International. I think this is by the way where we've gotta be slightly careful of exaggerating the media in this. I mean, the reason that the Murdoch papers in the end I think on the whole got behind me was because in a way we were getting traction with the country. Right, so, I don't - I think one's gotta be careful of this idea that there's some sort of Pavlovian - you know, the media say "Vote this" and the public all go for that. It's more complicated than that. But, for me it was about saying to a whole group of people who Labour had lost contact with and who were the readers of these types of newspapers, "Look, listen to me and open your mind to the possibility there is an alternative to the Conservatives." So, it was more for that bigger strategic political reason than just, you know, you're gonna get some of these papers on your side, because frankly, they could have come on my side, if I'd had the wrong policies, if we hadn't been New Labour, we wouldn'ta got elected.
LEIGH SALES: So, do you think though that even with the right policies, that you would have become elected without their support?
TONY BLAIR: Good question. I think so, but, you know, look, you're a political leader, you're getting across your message, the media get across your message or not, as the case may be - they're important. And that's why I think we've not got to go overly sort of prissy about this. I mean, the fact is it's important to have relations with the key media outlets.
LEIGH SALES: If we can turn to other subjects, starting with those terrible events in Norway over the weekend. It's raised a discussion about far-right extremism in Europe and whether it's on the increase. Speaking broadly, are you seeing any trends that are of concern to you?
TONY BLAIR: Yes, I think so. I mean, I think - look, there are right-wing parties in Europe that I totally disapprove of, but who would be horrified and shocked by what the killer in Norway did. And so, you know, let's be clear: he is an isolated individual and whatever links he has with various organisations, what he did was absolutely repugnant and despicable to everybody.
Having said that, I think if you look at the trends within European politics over the past few years, I think in part accentuated by the financial crisis, there is a growing - you know, this is the issue that I'm passionate about now is this growing sense of people that they are in some cultural battle. It might be between the West and Islam, or - but it's not simply confined to that; and where people then regard themselves as under attack from those of another culture and therefore having to stand up and fight them back and ... . Now, at its most extreme, then you end up with these crazy and appalling people who then kill a lot of innocent people, but far further along the spectrum towards more mainstream views, you get a sense and a sort of atmosphere in which the type of society that I would like to see where people live in mutual respect with each other from different face and cultures is put at risk.
LEIGH SALES: There still is an enormous amount of economic instability in Europe. When do you think we're gonna be through that and into a genuine recovery?
TONY BLAIR: I think when we take the long-term measures of credibility that will give the short-term measures credibility. In other words, with Europe at the moment - I mean, Europe's - you know, this is really tough for leaders, by the way, and we're asking a lot from them, from their countries, in this situation. But I think what was announced last week is important. You know, there's a massive European stability financial facility now of 440 billion Euros, I think it is. They're going to deploy that, but I do think we've got to understand there are two things we need to do. We - if you want monetary union to work, you've got to have some fiscal co-ordination alongside with it. And secondly, you know, in Europe, as elsewhere in the West, we've gotta deal with the changing demographics of our societies. We've got to reform our social model, we gotta realise that pensions and welfare and so on are gonna be treated differently. I mean, you guys in Australia actually have done pretty well. I mean, most of us come here, look at your economic statistics and think, "My God, I wish we had that back home." So, you know, but I think whatever part of the world you're in at the moment, the pace of change, the impact of technology, the interdependence of the world mean that you've got to take these long-term decisions now if you want short-term credibility.
LEIGH SALES: Which politicians do you see around the world demonstrating the courage to do that?
TONY BLAIR: Um, well I think the political leaders are trying to do it. I mean, I think what President Obama's trying to do in the US, to get a big budget deal, not a temporary fix, is right. I think what Sarkozy and Merkel and others are trying to do is correct in respect of Europe, but it's tough. You know, one of the things I've learnt since coming out of office is how much easier it is to give the advice than take the decision. I mean, you know, it's tough.
LEIGH SALES: Tony Blair, thankyou so much for making time to speak to us today
TONY BLAIR: Thankyou.
The Connection is the Papal Knighthood - All those close to MURDOCH including Murdoch himself are members of SMOM