Tony Blair still divides Britons. His supporters are messianic. His opponents are implacable. But watching their former Prime Minister testifying to the Leveson inquiry that is looking into the tangled relationships between the U.K.’s press, police and politicians, the nation’s viewers were briefly united in two impulses. The first was to adjust the color on their TV sets; like tree rings, the deepening shades of Blair’s tan marks pointed to each month spent roaming the world since he left Downing Street in June 2007. And the second was to admit, however grudgingly, that he’s left a hole in public life. Blair is the last national leader to govern with great thumping majorities, the last to be vested with all the power a democracy can confer. Which is why everyone was agog to hear Blair explain why despite all that power, he had so often appeared supplicant to another powerful man: Rupert Murdoch.
The discovery that phone hacking was deployed as a journalistic tool by Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid the News of the World has led to serial revelations about politicians cozying up to the red tops rather than seeking to rein in their excesses. Much of the focus has been on the ties between the current Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government and Murdoch’s British interests, including newspaper group News International and the satellite broadcaster BSkyB. That’s hardly surprising. David Cameron, newly installed in Downing Street at the head of the coalition in 2010, inadvertently sparked renewed interest in the scope of the misdeeds at the News of the World by hiring as his communications chief Andy Coulson, a former editor of the paper on whose watch two men had been convicted three years earlier of hacking phones. (Coulson has always denied knowledge of hacking; he was arrested by police investigating hacking in 2011.)
And then there was the small matter of BSkyB. As News Corp. sought to increase its 39.1% stake in BSkyB to full ownership, Cameron transferred oversight of the bid process from Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable, who had been secretly taped criticizing Murdoch, to Conservative Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Evidence to the Leveson inquiry last week revealed that Hunt had expressed support for the bid in a private memo to Cameron before being appointed as its impartial arbiter. The Culture Secretary is scheduled to give his own version of events to the inquiry on May 31, and with an overheated Westminster rumor mill serving up stories, denied by Hunt’s aides, that he plans to resign — in some versions immediately after the hearing — there’s a greater sense of urgency to examining Murdoch’s influence on current office holders.
Yet those current office holders are by no means the first to seek Murdoch’s favor. Cameron, who once horrified the right wing of his Conservative Party by describing himself as the “heir to Blair,” has certainly emulated the media strategy that brought Blair’s New Labour to power. Both men saw the support of the tabloid press, especially Murdoch’s stable, as essential to winning office and enlisted former tabloid editors as key advisers (Alastair Campbell was Blair’s equivalent to Coulson). Both men cultivated friendships with senior figures in the Murdoch empire, including Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, who was charged earlier this month in relation to the hacking scandal with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. But, said Blair, neatly drawing a line between his behavior and that of his successors, his friendships with Brooks and with her überboss (“to put it bluntly, the decisionmaker was not Rebekah Brooks … it was Rupert Murdoch, for sure,” Blair told Leveson) flourished only after he stepped down as Premier.
Blair is certainly close to Murdoch. As the tycoon’s spouse Wendi Deng revealed in an interview with U.S. Vogue, Blair is godfather to the couple’s daughter Grace. That would never have happened while he was still Prime Minister, Blair told the inquiry. “Now it’s different. I don’t feel the same pressures.” He described his friend as “not an identikit right-wing person … he has bits of him that are very antiestablishment, meritocratic.” And if that failed to soothe Labour supporters who fear Murdoch’s influence blunted the Blair government’s reforming zeal, Blair had this to say: “I don’t know a policy that we changed as a result of Rupert Murdoch.”
Perhaps, but even Blair admitted that there’s a whole raft of policy that was never tackled at all for fear of offending Murdoch and other media figures: reforming ownership of the press and finding ways to better regulate it. He denied any “implied deals” with Murdoch but said, “My view, rightly or wrongly, was that if in those circumstances I’d said I’m going to take on the media and change the law on the media, you would have had to clear the decks. This would have been a major confrontation … The price you would pay would be to push out a lot of things I cared about.” He decided to “manage” the media, not to “confront” the problems.
In the end, it was not the press that unseated Blair. Forces within his party and his decision to deploy in Iraq did that. It was telling that his Leveson session was briefly interrupted by a protester shouting about his role in the war and that his car was later pelted with eggs. More considered assessments of Blair’s legacy will surely also focus on his adventures abroad. But as Blair indicated, his legacy might also have included rising to a challenge back home to create a healthier media environment and “drain the poison from the culture.” His successors will be wishing he had done so.
Catherine Mayer is TIME Europe editor. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Amorality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.