In Berlusconi and Putin's steps

Tony Blair's instincts towards the media have sinister Russian and Italian echoes

John Kampfner
Saturday January 31, 2004

The similarity between Tony Blair and two other world leaders, men he calls friends, is striking. The prime minister has as role models Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Vladimir Putin of Russia. Where the media is an encumbrance, where it gets in the way of spreading the message, do what you can to neuter it.

The circumstances differ, the actions vary, but the instincts are the same. To understand the first-generation Blairites' media approach to Iraq - from exaggeration of the WMD threat to the fury over Gilligan - you have to appreciate their psychosis of opposition. For 18 years they believed the press was out to get them, regarding those journalists who were not with them all the time as being indomitably against them.

Now, traits that many hoped Blair and friends had shed are reappearing with a vengeance. How else could one look on Alastair Campbell's finger-jabbing performances last July and his folie de grandeur declaration of victory over the BBC on Wednesday? One might dismiss it as laughable were it not so dangerous.

The dangers to the BBC are many, for all the staff protests and management assurances. Watch the BBC fall back into the worst of the old days. Watch it become cowed. The governors' over-reaction in forcing out the director general, and the craven apology of the interim chairman, Lord Ryder, bodes ill.

The future Blair would like to see was outlined by Campbell in February 1999. Dismissing the BBC as a "downmarket, dumbed-down, over-staffed, over-bureaucratic, ridiculous organisation", he insisted that its role should be to allow "democratically-elected politicians to speak for themselves, free and unedited".

In Italy and in Russia, television already provides government with such a service. Berlusconi has at his disposal an empire of private TV stations. Far from disbanding it, as he promised he would when taking power, he has expanded it. He has the state broadcaster in his pocket after disbanding the majority of the board of governors (shades of Hutton). Newspaper editors have been sacked for daring to criticise him.

In Moscow the situation is worse, although expectations were never high. Putin not only emasculated NTV, the only national television station with any gumption, and closed down an offshoot, but such is the level of control now that no political chat show can be broadcast live.

Why the comparison? Britain still has a vibrant written press and strong civil society. But consider the leaders' attitudes. Would Blair act any differently if he were in the shoes of Putin or Berlusconi? The evidence suggests not. It was he, after all, who lobbied the then Italian government on behalf of Rupert Murdoch and Berlusconi back in 1998. When in Russia, Blair has - unlike Gerhard Schröder or Jacques Chirac - steadfastly refused to lobby Putin over freedom of the press. In spite of disagreements over Iraq, Blair remains well disposed to Putin. He sees the Russian leader as a man who gets things done. As for Berlusconi, Blair does not seem to understand what the fuss is about.

The decent people in Downing Street and in the cabinet are uncomfortable. They know the dangers, have read the post-Hutton polls, have seen the contempt. They know Hutton's absurd bias is turning a judicial victory into a moral defeat. They know that the appointment of a Blair patsy as BBC chairman will further inflame passions. They know that ... but does Blair? How far will he follow his overseas friends?

· John Kampfner is political editor of the New Statesman and author of Blair's Wars · John Kampfner is political editor of the New Statesman and author of Blair's Wars