New Labour favoured some journalists because they worked for Rupert Murdoch, Andrew Marr told the Leveson Inquiry today.
The former BBC political editor and ex-editor of the Independent newspaper said that after Tony Blair came to power in 1997, “I think a decision was taken that it was very important to keep the Murdoch press as far as it was possible – it wasn’t always possible – onside, to have a close relationship with their leading journalists and reporters.”
For those not “inside the tent”, such as the Daily Telegraph, it was “cold”.
“I felt that from outside it felt quite cold and chilly not to be held in that group and I felt that what happened is that Rupert Murdoch decided to support Tony Blair when Blair looked like he was going to be a winner.
“He has a propensity to support winners. And from the government’s point of view, having that great swathe of media influence onside was extremely helpful.”
Marr, who presents his own Sunday morning politics TV programme, was an influential senior political reporter for years.
He told the inquiry it was important that working journalists and politicians were not hindered from interacting by having to log all their meetings.
There was a case to be argued that senior politicians such as the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer should have to record when they have entertained journalists or media owners.
But he insisted that key public interest stories were broken by reporters having day-to-day contact with MPs in the way reporters might work with neighbourhood police.
“Without that I don’t think the public would have known about the difficulties in the Blair-Brown relationship for years and years and years. I think that would have been a significant absence in the public debate.
“That was a really important story and it came out because politicians were talking privately to journalists.”
Marr was asked whether he overstepped the mark in September 2009 when he interviewed then prime minister Gordon Brown at the Labour Party Conference and asked him if he was taking prescription painkillers.
“It’s not a moment I look back on in my career with enormous enthusiasm or pride,” he answered.
But he stressed it was only because he felt it simply was not worth it as several good stories that arose from the interview were overshadowed by the controversy surrounding him questioning the PM on a medical matter.
Marr said it was a legitimate inquiry and appropriate question. “There were a large number of stories coming out of Number 10 and Number 11 at the time about intemperate behaviour, about things being smashed, enormous arguments and so on.”
‘It takes a wise man to have the right enemies’
Meanwhile, Stephen Dorrell, who oversaw media policy while heritage secretary in John Major’s Conservative government in the mid-1990s, told the inquiry that, after two reports by Sir David Calcutt into press standards and a Select Committee inquiry, he made suggestions to the prime minister that they could implement a “do-nothing option” but it would “take a great deal of brazening out”.
Dorrell, MP for Charnwood in Leicestershire, said the Government was making the “increasingly implausible threat” of regulation which he believed needed to be “taken off the table of discussion” because it was not practical.
After being shown a Daily Mail comment piece from the time, which criticised the Tory Government’s consideration of privacy legislation and press regulation, he was asked how concerned he was about the coverage.
He said: “Government is a political organisation, and I was told early in my political life that any man can have friends but it takes a wise man to have the right enemies. You have to pick which battles you are going to fight.
“I am not in favour of having government policy determined by press editorial but nor am I, in the real world of government, being determinedly blind to press editorial. You have to choose which arguments you are going to have.”
In 1995 Dorrell wrote to Major saying there were three options: to legislate against press intrusion, to do nothing, or to announce that government would legislate if parliamentary time permitted.
But the latter would not happen, the politician said, and was a more judicious way of doing nothing. He wrote: “The latter would take a great deal of brazening out given the history, but I nonetheless think it’s the least bad choice.”
He added that it would “avoid a head-on collision with the press and gets the Select Committee off our back”.
In July 1995 Mr Dorrell was succeeded by Virginia Bottomley and the government decided there was no case for statutory regulation of the Press, much preferring self-regulation, Mr Dorrell said.
Also, he added that introducing a new physical intrusion offence would not be sufficiently workable to be brought on the statute book, and there was insufficient public consensus for a privacy tort for a new civil remedy.
David Barr, counsel to the inquiry, asked if Dorrell now felt the Government had missed an opportunity.
“No, I don’t,” he said, adding that government needed to be careful that going the “legislative route you don’t create a cure that’s worse than the disease”.
The Leveson Inquiry was set up by Prime Minister David Cameron last July in response to revelations that the News of the World hacked murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone after she disappeared in 2002.
The hearing is currently focusing on relationships between politicians and the media.