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Blair to Resign

Aired May 11, 2007 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.

TONY BLAIR, PRIME MINISTER, ENGLAND: On the 27th of June, I will tender my resignation from the office of Prime Minister to the Queen.


SWEENEY: Tony Blair talked a good talk, but did the nation buy his words? This week, media manipulation and number 10. We look at the relationship between the British Prime Minister and the press with two veteran reporters.

And was Mr. Blair too concerned with public relations and spin? I'll ask someone with personal insight.

It has been 10 years of memorable events on the domestic and international fronts. From the general election landslide victory in 1997, to the death of Princess Diana, the Good Friday agreement, the London bombing, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One man has ruled the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Tony Blair. To discuss his decade in power, I'm joined by Christiane Amanpour, CNN's chief international correspondent. Christiane covered Mr. Blair's election for CNN 10 years ago and has interviewed the prime minister many turning points in his political career.

Also, Robin Oakley, CNN's European political editor. He formerly was the political editor at the BBC. He has nearly 40 years of experience in political journalism. His book, "The Inside Track," is based on his experiences.

Robin, when Tony Blair was first elected that early summer May day in 1997, what did you think he promised and signified and symbolized?

ROBIN OAKLEY, CNN EUROPEAN POLITICAL EDITOR: We were expecting a complete break with the past in style, as well as in substance. There was a tired conservative administration after 18 years. And as Tony Blair exultantly said in the House of Commons one day of John Major, I leave my party. He follows his.

We were expecting a really strong sense of direction. We were expecting the energy of youth from Tony Blair. We got that to a considerable degree. We didn't perhaps get the cleaning up of British politics, which was implied by the change in style.

SWEENEY: What do you think, Christiane, he embodied at the outset of his premiership?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, my focus has always been on international affairs. And I went, for instance, just before he was elected through the Balkan Wars. And we had gone through Prime Minister John Major. And there was so much lethargy, so much of doing nothing over the Balkan Wars. Genocide in Europe and Europeans and the United States really distinguish themselves by letting it happen on our watch.

Tony Blair came in and basically said enough of that. He did have a moral leadership vision for these terrible conflicts. He did pioneer, if you like, and support the humanitarian intervention that meant that Kosovo, when that blew up, it wasn't going to be allowed to go down the same road to genocide that Bosnia was. And he was very firm on that.

He did commit troops to Sierra Leone, for instance, and successfully propped up a peace situation there, which continues to this day. His vision on that level was very clear and unique.

SWEENEY: And is he, by nature, an interventionist, do you agree?

AMANPOUR: I do believe so. And we've seen that wherever he's looked and wherever the world has called, he's chosen where to go. And he's chosen the important places to go.

Obviously, there are many areas that he could have gone in. Look at Northern Ireland. Good Friday agreement. After all those years of what we euphemistically call "the trouble," I know it's a British domestic story, but it also involved the presidency of the United States, the full involvement of the prime minister of Great Britain, international cooperation to get that done.

OAKLEY: He is an avowed interventionist, as Christiane said. He's a kind of muscular Christian. And he became excited, I think particularly over Kosovo by the sheer morality of what he was doing, and the chance to intervene in that kind of way.

In a sense, he got quite easily and (INAUDIBLE) bored by domestic policies - sorting out the health service and the education service and things like that. Not that he didn't want to drive on in those directions, but he was excited by playing a role on the world stage. And people characterize him as George Bush's poodle. It may at times have been George Bush guide dog. He went into these things because he wanted to go into them. He wasn't being dragged along on a leash.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you. How much of his own personality, of course, is tied up with this? How can you separate the dancer from the dance?

OAKLEY: He's hugely optimistic. Christiane was referring to Northern Ireland. And I think it's an enormous tribute to Tony Blair's optimism as a politician the way he kept the drive going.

Time and again, we'd go over to Belfast and report the latest round in the peace process. He and Bertia Hernley, Irish (INAUDIBLE), would think they'd got the breakthrough there. And then the northern Ireland politicians would drag it all down again.

And instead of going back to Downing Street and saying, that's enough of that, I'm going to concentrate on something else, Tony Blair's sheer optimism made him go back to basics, get the people talking again.

SWEENEY: Christiane, he also displayed a very common touch. And I think on the international stage, he became immediately well known just some months after he was first elected with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. What do you recall about that time and his ability to put his finger on the pulse of the nation?

AMANPOUR: Well, his famous phrase "the people's princess" sort of cemented him as somebody who had his finger on the pulse, was able to read the situation amongst the public in a way that many of the grandees did not. And certainly the palace didn't read the mood of the country.

And so, he was able to do that in way that internationally, I think, people had not expected Britain and the British with their stalwartness and their, you know, stiff upper lip to react in such a way to the death of the princess.

And he immediately understood that, capitalized on it in a good way, brought the country together.

OAKLEY: Tony Blair can do the touchy feely stuff in the way that modern politicians have to. To some extent, he's a lawyer picking up a brief, but he did have this capacity for shaping the national mood, articulating the national mood. And indeed, when he was working alongside George Bush, perhaps articulating what George Bush wanted to do across the world as well.

And remember that Tony Blair's legacy and domestic policy is not an unreasonable one. There are real achievements there. And apart from everything else, he's shifted the gravity of British politics back to the center.

AMANPOUR: I think that's absolutely true and clear. And I think we shouldn't forget the prince and many French people, who I heard talking about the just election in France, were lamenting that even if they had wanted to vote for Segoline Royale, that she hadn't done a Blair, so to speak. She hadn't been able to yank her party from the sclerotic (ph) path to the viable pragmatic present.

And so he really, you know, it was the third way in politics. He built Clinton. That generation of politicians, they injected a youth and a vigor and a different dynamic.

But with all of this praise is going to be Iraq, is going to be a millstone around his neck.

SWEENEY: That's a perfect time to take a break, Christiane, because we will get onto Iraq and his legacy there. For the moment, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.


BLAIR: When people look back on this time and look back on this conflict, I honestly believe they will see this as one of the defining moments of our century.


SWEENEY: Just weeks after the invasion in 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Iraq for what looked like a victory tour, convinced he had been proved right. But did the media have a different reaction? Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Iraq seems all but certain to overshadow Prime Minister Tony Blair's legacy. According to an opinion poll for the British paper "The Independent," seven out of 10 people believe Mr. Blair will be remembered for the war.

But despite public hostility over the war, 61 percent of people believe Mr. Blair has been a good prime minister overall. 36 percent hold the opposite view.

Overseas, the prime minister is more popular. According to a CNN Opinion Research Corporation poll, 70 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Mr. Blair. 15 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the leader.

Well to discuss Mr. Blair's Iraq policy and his relationship with the United States and President Bush, we continue with CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and CNN European political editor Robin Oakley.

Christiane, we finished up there at the end of the first segment about Iraq. You were talking about Iraq and how that might dominate Mr. Blair's legacy.

AMANPOUR: Well, there's no doubt because of the way the Iraq War has turned out it's authors, its cheerleaders are going to go down in history as having failed. And it's going to be the legacy of George Bush, and it's going to be the dominant legacy at least for the foreseeable future of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It's hard to imagine when somebody has had to pay such a high price for his close association with the United States president. And that's what's going to happen. This failed policy is going to be a huge part of his legacy.

SWEENEY: Robin, as we discussed in the first segment, I mean he has a number of notable successes, you know, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland. He got the mood right with the death of Diana Princess of Wales. Where did it all go wrong over Iraq? Where did he make a misjudgment or did he in your view?

OAKLEY: Well, the thing was that he committed himself to stand shoulder to shoulder, as he put it, with the United States after 9/11. And I think Tony Blair recognized that the United States' attitude to the world was changed or was going to be changed by 9/11. He wanted the line up there with them strongly.

And I think he went into the war in Iraq, not just at the behest of George Bush, who gave him several opportunities to pull out in military terms, saying that, you know, America didn't actually need Britain in military terms, but would welcome Britain's support.

But Tony Blair said no, I am with you because he had this conviction that you have to stand up for the right moral cause and protect your society these days, and be willing to go out and fight for it.

The problem for Tony Blair was - of course in those days, a lot of people saw it as a good thing that Tony Blair was going in with George Bush, because they thought he might be a restraining influence where George Bush might overdo things.

SWEENEY: And was there at any point he was a restraining influence with George W. Bush?

OAKLEY: There's no great evidence that he was, or even trying to be. And of course, what happened to Tony Blair in the end was the way in which he made the case for war in Iraq, undermined him, and within no time, we've got the biggest demonstrations we've ever seen on the streets in Britain. We had two-thirds of the British electorate saying they didn't trust the British prime minister. And that has dogged him ever since.

SWEENEY: And this is where it all began to be wrong. This is an example where he really didn't have his finger on the pulse of the British society.

AMANPOUR: He knew what Britain was thinking, but he strongly believed in the cause, in the just cause. He is a strong Atlanticist. He is this - you know, there's no air. There's no space between him and the United States, between Britain and the United States. He made that clear over and over again.

Much more so than a European. I think they know he has cemented Britain's Atlantic alliance. But the thing is he didn't even get what he asked for from President Bush afterwards.

Had he been able to do what he said he wanted to do after the war, make peace between Israel and the Palestinians, that was his mantra. I will get this and I will do this. And this will be my payback.

Didn't say it in so many words. But he didn't get it from Bush.

OAKLEY: Actually got George Bush to say at one stage that he was going to put as much into the Middle East peace initiative as Tony Blair had put into the Northern Ireland peace initiative.

Well, when George Bush said that, he had no idea obviously how much Tony Blair had put into Northern Ireland. But it's never happened.

SWEENEY: There are those who say that he will be his own harshest critic over Iraq, having sat down. But very briefly, both of you, has the media in this country been fair or very biased towards him since Iraq?

OAKLEY: The media hasn't been altogether fair to him, because it has concentrated so much on that one issue. But partly because it became the aperjet (ph) of the whole Downing Street style of operating by spin, of overselling what it was doing, of obfuscating the case against itself.

And I think because Iraq was the biggest example, excuse me, the biggest example of that, the media here tended to go on concentrating on it.

AMANPOUR: I think from an external point of view, because there was no opposition, no political opposition to Tony Blair, I think many observers believe that the British press took upon itself the role of the loyal opposition in the absence of any Tory political opposition.

This is a prime minister who's been elected three times after all. He's got the popularity and the backing of the people for three elections. And the press took it - took that role of loyal opposition upon itself.

And so from the very beginning from almost the day or the month after he became elected, there was a real pounding back at him from the press.

Some of his policies have failed. Iraq, for instance. But perhaps he didn't get as fair a run as he might have done on some of the others.

OAKLEY: Well, third election victory was after Iraq.

SWEENEY: Mm-hmm. We have to leave it there. Christiane Amanpour, Robert Oakley, thank you both very much indeed.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, influencing the media and the public agenda. We look at the relationship between the prime minister and the press.

But first, a Blair PR master stroke. Blair once made a cameo appearance as himself on "The Simpsons," recording the strip at Downing Street in April 2003, weeks after the Iraq War began. In the episode, the Simpsons meet the prime minister while on holiday in London. And the episode ends with Homer confusing Mr. Blair with Mr. Bean, a clueless buffoon in a British comedy television series.


TONY BLAIR: Hello. Welcome to the United Kingdom.

BART SIMPSON: Hi, Mr. Tony Blair? Maybe you could give us a personal tour of your country.

BLAIR: I'd love to, but I'm late for an appointment. I'm greeting a lovely Dutch couple at gate 23. Cheerio.

HOMER SIMPSON: Wow, I can't believe we met Mr. Bean.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Now the balance of power between Tony Blair's government and the British press. New labor took media management to new levels. As early as September 1997, change was already afoot. Alistair Campbell, number 10's former director of communications, wrote to the government press officers and public relations staff, signaling the change.

"Decide your headlines.Sell your story, and if you disagree with what is being written, argue your case, if you need support from here let me know."

Well, to discuss the government's media handling further, I'm joined by political commentator and author Nicholas Jones. His books include "Sound Bites and Spin Doctors" and "The Sultan of Spin."

I mean, those early days of the new labor government, it seems quite apparent in hindsight to put the head of very clearly thought out way of managing as best they could of the media.

NICHOLAS JONES, AUTHOR, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, there was no doubt about it that labor, under Tony Blair, and with spin doctors like Alistair Campbell knew that they have to get the popular newspapers of Britain on their side.

SWEENEY: Does spin doctoring exist before the Blair government?

JONES: Yes, to a degree, but nothing like as calculated as it was under the labor administration. And they made it much more political, because you're quite right when you said in your introduction just a few moments ago that Campbell issued that edict to government information officers that they've got to grab the agenda.

Of course, the criticism was that he was beginning to politicize the government's information service, but there's no doubt in those very early years, yes, they went out of their way to make sure that newspapers like "The Sun," the biggest selling newspaper in the country, were on the side of the government.

SWEENEY: "The Sun," of course, owned by the Murdoch Corporation, extremely important for any government. I mean, briefly, can you explain the relationship between any government to the day in this country that seems to need the support of "The Sun" and Rupert Murdoch in order to get elected?

JONES: What you have to remember about Britain is that we have mass circulation newspapers selling millions of copies a day for "Sun," selling 3.3 million. Well, that's three times more than the "USA Today" newspaper.

So you can begin to see that here in a small country, it's the popular newspapers that have got the power to set the agenda, the political agenda. And of course, why they are so attractive to the government of the day is because they can help deliver support, critical support.

So if we look back to the Thatcher years under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, she had the support of the popular papers. And she was invincible with a big majority and with a popular papers of Britain behind you, well, the prime minister can do pretty well anything they like.

SWEENEY: It wasn't long, though, before there was a bit of a backlash against spin doctoring in particular. And spinning became something that much maligned the Blair government, and particularly singularly associated with Alistair Campbell?

JONES: Yes. What the Blair government did, of course, was that they pushed the spin too far. They were undoubtedly investing big money in our schools and in our hospitals. But they began to try to convince the people that the results were already being delivered. But there was more choice in the hospitals, but school standards were improving. And actually, they weren't.

So people began to suss out this and say, hang on a minute. We're not getting what the spin doctors say we are getting. And that began to sow the seeds of doubt.

Of course, it all went horrendously wrong when it came to the Iraq War.

SWEENEY: Exactly the point I was about to raise. Why did it go so wrong because the British public was so dead against the war in a way, no matter what was the spin from Downing Street?

JONES: Well, there was undoubtedly considerable opposition within the country. But of course, what happened after the event was that the country realized that the spin on the war had been pretty well a blatant lie.

Now what we're talking about is, of course, and it was very important here in Britain how the threat of Saddam Hussein was presented to the British people. This suggestion that they'd got uranium, that somehow the Iraqis have got uranium.

Well, I mean, the Americans now admit that that was quite exaggerated. There was this suggestion that somehow, and this was the spin, that Saddam could launch missiles, which might get to Britain within 45 minutes.

Now these were shocking and alarming warnings. And of course, at the end of the day, they were proved to be false. And that is of course what has done so much damage to Tony Blair's reputation.

SWEENEY: Now that Tony Blair is stepping aside and Gordon Brown is likely to be the next prime minister, how important is it? And will he be able to indeed nurture a relationship with "The Sun" and the Murdoch newspapers to do what he needs to do in order to win the next election?

JONES: There's no doubt that Gordon Brown will be as anxious as Tony Blair was to make sure that he keeps on site. Newspapers proprietors like Rupert Murdoch. They've got 40 percent. He's got 42 percent of the British share of the newspaper market.

No, there's no doubt about it. The Murdoch press is very important. And of course, you have to remember that it's newspapers like "The Sun," which are still supporting the war effort in the U.K., even though it's been so disastrous in Iraq, it's "The Sun" newspaper, which stands by our boys and girls out there, fighting for Britain.

SWEENEY: Nicholas Jones, thank you very much indeed.

The relationship between the savvy master of modern public relations and Queen Elizabeth II is the focus of the movie, "The Queen."


TONY BLAIR: Your majesty, my party has won the election. So I come now to ask your permission to form a government.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: No, Mr. Blair. Mr. Blair, I ask the question.


SWEENEY: Elizabeth is, in a sense, Tony Blair's boss. The job of prime minister is in the queen's gift. She accepts them and accepts their resignations.

CNN's Richard Quest has more on the relationship between the queen and Mr. Blair. He filed this report during the queen's weekly royal visit to the United States.


RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The queen has been receiving the prime minister since 1953. She's had 10 prime ministers that she's asked to form governments. Winston Churchill was the first. Tony Blair is the latest.

The prime minister has to go for an audience with the queen every Tuesday afternoon. The queen is the one person that they can talk to. Her majesty said that they can unburden themselves to her. They can talk over options. They can basically be assured that what they say to the queen won't be repeated or leaked to the morning newspapers.

Does the queen like the prime minister? It's one of those questions everybody always asks. We know, for instance, that perhaps she wasn't too fond of Margaret Thatcher. And rumor has it that at the height of the displeasure, she actually made Baroness Thatcher stand during the weekly audience.

As for Tony Blair, the two are believed to have got on very well indeed. Whether the queen likes prime ministers or not isn't the issue. As she said in Washington earlier this week, governments come and go. So when it finally happened, it'll be goodbye Tony Blair. Now who's next?


SWEENEY: And that's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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