Tony Blair’s attack on the media may or may not be fair. But it does illustrate an iron law of British politics. All prime ministers end up fearing and hating the press.
The first time I interviewed Blair – shortly after he became PM in 1997 – he made rather a point of underlining that he was going to avoid this particular pitfall. I remember him saying with a laugh that his predecessor – John Major – had been so obsessive about the newspapers that he had anxiously checked the first editions at 11 at night. "I don’t bother with all that," said Blair with an airy laugh.
Things had definitely changed ten years on. Some FT colleagues and I visited the prime minister earlier this year. Before we got onto the formal bit of the interview, Blair vented in an agitated fashion about a particular newspaper that he felt was careering down market.
(He was also absolutely right about John Major, incidentally. I once interviewed him and I’ve never met a man who was more obviously suspicious of me – and journalists in general. And all we were talking about was cricket.)
But back to Blair – what happened? I think the first thing to say is that his protestations in 1997 were a little disingenuous. The very fact that he was willing to spend an hour in an off-the-record chat with me and a colleague from The Economist suggested that Blair was in fact extremely interested in cultivating the press. Other journalists from publications with bigger circulations or more perceived influence spent far, far more time with the prime minister. In fact, I was always amazed by how much time Blair was prepared to waste in off-the-record conversations with newspaper columnists and editors. Piers Morgan, the former editor of the Mirror, (nickname – Piers Moron) crows in his diaries about how much time he spent talking to Blair – I think he records some 80 meetings. If you had to spend that amount of time with Piers Morgan, you might also end up despising the press.
Perhaps Blair and future prime ministers should think of the press as like a pit bull dog. You can spend hours stroking it, but eventually it’s going to turn around and bite you.