Anti-War Protester Disrupts Inquiry As Blair Testifies
Alan Cowell, John F. Burns, The New York Times
n antiwar protester broke into Britain's long-running judicial inquiry into press ethics through a supposedly secure corridor on Monday as former Prime Minister Tony Blair was giving evidence, accusing him of being in the pay of JPMorgan Chase when he sent British soldiers in support of American troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Calling Mr. Blair a war criminal, the man began his tirade by saying, "Excuse me," but then went on to level his charges as security guards struggled to surround him. Even the head of the inquiry, Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson, rose from his chair, seemingly ready to defend himself or Mr. Blair, who sat impassively through the disruption, a tanned and immaculately tailored figure, his chin resting in his left hand.
"This man should be arrested for war crimes," the protester shouted before he was pushed out of the room still making his accusations. "The man is a war criminal."
The electrifying moment raised disturbing questions about the security arrangements within the Royal Courts of Justice where the inquiry has been sitting for months.
A protester is restrained by security while former British Prime Minister Tony Blair testifies at the Leveson inquiry, 05/28/12. (photo: Reuters TV/Reuters)
"I am sorry for that, Mr. Blair," Judge Leveson told him as three security guards pinioned the intruder and bundled him out of the courtroom. The judge said he wanted to find out how "this gentleman managed to access the court through what's supposed to be a secure corridor, and I'll have an investigation undertaken about that immediately."
Mr. Blair has been a frequent target of antiwar protests since his decision to support the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003 and his deployment of British reinforcements to Afghanistan - policies that contributed to his political downfall.
The police did not immediately identify the intruder. But as he was being led away, the man gave his name as David Lawley-Wakelin, the Press Association news agency reported, and said he was from an advocacy group called the Alternative Iraq Inquiry that is seeking to offer a different narrative of the conflict from the account likely to emerge from an official inquiry.
He had apparently got into courtroom 73, where the inquiry is being held, from a corridor reserved for judges, the Press Association said. Outside the court in central London, a small knot of 25 or 30 protesters had greeted Mr. Blair's arrival with banners proclaiming: "Troops home," "Bliar" and "Afghanistan out."
With a shock of black hair and a slender frame, the protester wore a white shirt and light-colored trousers. Last July, at a separate parliamentary inquiry into Britain's phone-hacking scandal, a protester slipped by security to throw a foam pie at the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who was testifying alongside his son James.
Mr. Blair denied the protester's assertions that JPMorgan had paid him $6 million a year for supporting the war in Iraq. Judge Leveson told Mr. Blair that he was not obliged to respond to the protester's accusations. But Mr. Blair said he wanted to respond since it was his "experience that if you had 1,000 people in an event and somebody got up and shouted something, then it's as if the other 999 needn't have bothered showing up."
His remarks seemed prescient since news coverage of his testimony Monday switched to the intrusion even as Mr. Blair seemed keen to offer a retrospective rationale for many of his contentious decisions during a decade in office, a tenure that began with overwhelming popularity and declined into fierce rivalries within his government and broad mistrust among Britons.
The episode in court Monday, which lasted perhaps half a minute, seemed also to show how Mr. Blair's deployments of British forces still haunt him five years after he left office.
Before the intrusion, Mr. Blair, who sought and won the endorsement of Mr. Murdoch's newspapers, repeatedly defended politicians' efforts to manage their relationship with news media owners and editors.
"British journalism at its best is the best in the world," Mr. Blair told the inquiry, and a "close interaction" between senior media figures and senior politicians "has always been the case and is going to go on." But he said "in certain parts of the media," journalists crossed a line between news and commentary and were "driven with an aggression and a prejudice."
"It stops being journalism," he said. "It becomes an instrument of political power or propaganda."
Political leaders, he said, "have to be in a position where you are managing this major force."
"This is not confined to the Murdoch media," Mr. Blair said. "The bulk of what we call the tabloid press writes in a way that if they are against" a policy or a politician, "it's a pretty all-out affair."
"Once they are against you, it's full-out, full-frontal," said Mr. Blair, who appeared in a dark suit and white tie that offset a deep tan. Since he left office, Mr. Blair has maintained a close involvement in international affairs as a Middle East envoy, but he has also been reported to be running successful consultancy and lecture-circuit businesses.
"I took the strategic decision to manage this, not confront it," he said of his relationship with British newspaper owners and editors.
Mr. Blair defended his own ties with Mr. Murdoch, which many outsiders had depicted as reflecting Labour's need for the tycoon's political support. But the former prime minister cast his ties between two figures in positions of power. He also said the relationship drew closer after he left office in 2007.
"I would describe my relationship with him as a working relationship, until after I left office," said Mr. Blair, who acknowledged on Monday that he had become a godfather to one of Mr. Murdoch's children. Grace, in 2010 at a ceremony on the banks of the River Jordan hosted by Queen Rania of Jordan where his presence was long kept a secret.
"Despite all this stuff about me being godfather to one of his children. I would not have been godfather to one of his children on the basis of my relationship in office," Mr. Blair said. "After I left office I got to know him. Now it's different. It's not the same."
While still in office, by contrast, "it was a relationship about power," said Mr. Blair. "I find these relationships are not personal, they are working, to me."
Mr. Blair's appearance offered welcome relief for Prime Minister David Cameron, switching attention from the close relationship between Mr. Murdoch and the current government to the tycoon's ties to its Labour Party predecessor.
For much of last week, the judicial inquiry headed by Judge Leveson sought to probe what seemed to be a cozy relationship between the Murdoch empire and the office of Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt at a time when Mr. Murdoch's News Corporation was seeking to acquire full ownership of BSkyB, Britain's biggest satellite broadcaster.
Mr. Hunt, who was the minister overseeing the bid, has been depicted as being favorable to the takeover at a time when his role required impartiality. He is to testify before the Leveson inquiry on Thursday.
The $12 billion bid was abandoned last year as the phone-hacking scandal broke over parts of the Murdoch media outpost in Britain.
In Mr. Blair's case, his ties to the Murdoch empire date to the 1990s, when Mr. Murdoch's top-selling tabloid, The Sun, swung its support behind Mr. Blair's Labour Party before the 1997 general election and later took credit for the Labour victory. Two years before the election, Mr. Blair, then leader of the opposition, flew to Hayman Island in Australia to address News Corporation executives as the Labour Party sought to reverse a hostile relationship with the press.
"Was it important to try to get The Sun on board? Absolutely," Mr. Blair said on Monday, adding that, if the issue had not been so important, he "would not have been going halfway around the world" to try to better his party's standing with the Murdoch newspapers.
But, he said, even if The Sun had withheld its support, "we would still have won" the 1997 vote.
One of Mr. Blair's former close aides and allies, Lord Peter Mandelson, told the Leveson inquiry last week that it was "arguably the case" that the relationship between Mr. Murdoch, Mr. Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, "became closer than was wise."
Mr. Blair said on Monday, "When I have heard people describe this as cozy and close, that's not the way I would put it."
Before the invasion of Iraq, for instance, Mr. Blair said he had three telephone calls with Mr. Murdoch, but that they were part of broader press contacts. Mr. Blair also said his ties to Rebekah Brooks - a central figure in Britain's phone-hacking scandal - became closer "once I left office when you were free from constraints." This month, Ms. Brooks, a former chief executive of News International and a onetime editor of two Murdoch tabloid newspaper, was charged with perverting the course of justice in a separate police criminal inquiry into the hacking affair.
When Ms. Brooks was forced to resign last year, Mr. Blair said he did not wish to be a fair-weather friend and was "very sorry for what happened to her."
In the run-up to the 2010 general election, in which Mr. Cameron came to power as head of a coalition government with the junior Liberal Democrats, The Sun abandoned Labour to swing behind Mr. Cameron's Conservatives.
"There's a view of Rupert Murdoch that he simply backs the winner," Mr. Blair said, but added that the tycoon had "very strong political views" that came "equal first" with an assessment of the likely victor in his calculations about whom to back through his newspapers.