FORMER British prime minister Tony Blair has condemned the relentless force of the 24/7 media cycle but defended the need for politicians to form close relationships with journalists.
On the first day of his Australian speaking tour, the 58-year-old addressed business leaders, current and retired politicians, sports stars and the odd celebrity who paid up to $1500 to listen to his views on globalisation, Africa and even some of his private moments with the Queen.
Mr Blair was joined at the luncheon by wife Cherie and flanked by guests including former Victorian premier John Brumby and philanthropist Jeanne Pratt, whose family company Visy is promoting the tour.
It is the first time Mr Blair has visited Australia since he resigned from the prime ministership in 2007.
Cherie Blair’s visit in 2005 was mired in controversy after she admitted profiting personally from a speaking tour that aimed to raise money for a children’s cancer charity.
Responding to a question about whether politicians had become too close to media outlets, Mr Blair said he had maintained close relationships with “people in the media, not just with the Murdoch people” during his leadership.
“I would find it pretty odd if politicians stopped having a relationship with the media,” he said.
“This is not something new. If you’re a politician, you’ve got to get your message across.”
But he expressed concerns over the way the new media, particularly on social networking sites, was operating.
“I think the way the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week media operates, combined with the new social media, just gives you a very difficult, brutal, occasionally feral environment in which you operate,” Mr Blair said.
“I think we should look at this not just about phone hacking, but about how a media operates properly in a democracy in the modern world,” he said, referring to the News of the World phone hacking scandal in Britain.
When he used to complain to Cherie about his treatment by the British press, Mr Blair said his wife would always put the coverage in perspective.
“(She) always used to say to me `stop whingeing, it’s voluntary’.”
Mr Blair was more positive on the subject of Africa, where he has established a foundation and a charity, despite the “tremendous” religious, cultural and political challenges the continent faces.
“I think this century will see Africa on the rise,” he said.
Quizzed on whether a conversation between himself and Queen Elizabeth depicted in the film The Queen was based on real events, he suggested the pair had made an agreement not to see the film.
But according to his wife, who has seen it, the filmmakers got one thing wrong.
Mr Blair’s first meeting as prime minister with the queen, also known as the “kissing hands” ceremony, was recreated in the film as a graceful, somewhat stiff affair at Buckingham Palace.
The reality was rather different, he said.
Briefed that the monarch’s hands should be brushed and not kissed, Mr Blair tripped over the carpet as the meeting doors were flung open.
“I literally fall in the Queen’s lap, so I ended up not so much kissing her hands or brushing them,” he said as he recounted a story that keeps getting better.
When Mrs Blair told the story to New York radio in 2008, she said her husband “ended up sort of warmly embracing the queen’s hand.”
Mr Blair continues his tour in Auckland and Brisbane on Thursday, and Sydney and Perth on Friday.