Blair: There Was No Deal With Murdoch

Mark White, home affairs correspondent

Tony Blair has denied striking a deal with Rupert Murdoch in return for support from the media tycoon's newspaper operation.

The former prime minister told the Leveson Inquiry there was a "deliberate strategy" within New Labour before the 1997 general election to improve relationships with what had been a broadly "Tory supporting" press.

Mr Blair, who led the party from 1994 to 2007, admitted the relationship with Mr Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times, was key to that strategy but rejected suggestions any bargain had been agreed.

The politician, who left office five years ago, looked tanned and relaxed - even when his evidence was interrupted by an anti-war protester calling him a "war criminal".

He categorically denied the suggestion that he had made a deal with any media boss to ensure their support while he was leading the Labour party.

"There was no deal on issues to do with the media, either with Rupert Murdoch or anyone else within the media, either express or implied, and to be fair he never sought such a thing..," he said.

"When it came to the specific issues in relation to the Murdoch media group, we more often decided against them than in favour of them."

Mr Blair acknowledged he had dropped plans to look at cross-media ownership before coming to power but said this was because to do so would have harmed his government's policy objectives.

He told the inquiry that taking on the media would have "pushed out" policies he cared about, listing health, crime and education as his top concerns.

"If you're a political leader and you've got very powerful media groups and you fall out with one of those groups, the consequence is such that you... are effectively blocked from getting across your message," he said.

"I'm being open about the fact that frankly I decided as a political leader, and this was a strategic decision, that I was going to manage that and not confront it."

The former leader said the 1992 general election - which Labour lost - was "etched" on his memory and that he had been "absolutely determined" his party would not be subjected to the same "media onslaught" when he was leader.

This desire was a key motivator in his decision to fly to Hayman island off Australia in 1995 to address a conference of News Corporation executives.

This was unprecedented territory for a Labour leader, but he managed to achieve what no one else in his party ever has, almost a decade of broadly positive support from Rupert Murdoch's newspapers.

Of the trip, he told the inquiry: "I would not have been going all the way round the world if it had not been a very deliberate and very strategic decision that I was going to try to persuade them, and I had a minimum objective.

"The minimum objective was to stop them tearing us to pieces and the maximum objective to open the way to support."

Despite having once compared the media with a feral beast, Mr Blair stressed that "at their best the best, British newspapers and journalists are as good as there is globally".

But he criticised the genre of journalism "where because this line between news and comment gets blurred, it stopped being journalism, it's an instrument of political power and propaganda."

On his relationship with Rupert Murdoch, Mr Blair said he would describe it as a "working relationship" while in office and that it had grown once he stepped down.

The Middle East envoy is now godfather to Rupert Murdoch's daughter Grace but says he never would have accepted that role while still being in full-time politics.

"Once you leave office the relationship can become different, and frankly healthier," he said.

The former Prime Minister also revealed to the inquiry that his wife had taken legal action against media reports about her on more than 30 occasions.

He said that some journalists had waged a "personal vendetta" against Cherie Blair, a former barrister.

Some of the comment, he said, had been legitimate, but at times it went too far.

Mr Blair said: "I think some of the papers, particularly the Mail group, took it too far and turned it into a personal vendetta."

He added: "I just don't think it is part of the political debate... the attacks on her and my children were unnecessary and wrong."

Mr Blair's testimony is the start of a week of evidence from political heavyweights, with Michael Gove, Theresa May, Vince Cable and Jeremy Hunt all due to appear.