10 January 2015

The Economist and Tony Blair

While I was writing the New Year’s Day post here about other people’s predictions over the previous 12 months, I found I needed to add an extra one from Tony Blair. It had appeared in The Economist (dated 3 January 2015 but on the streets by the end of 2014) and had been heralded by a tweet on 30 December from the magazine’s public policy and education editor, Anne McElvoy:

Blair’s office next day tweeted that his “remarks had been mis-interpreted”. The story caused a bit of a flurry
in the mainstream media but was forgotten by the start of the New Year, as was, as far as I can tell, the linkage between this article and a three-page feature, The Loneliness of Tony Blair, in the previous edition of The Economist on 20 December, their Christmas double issue. Sub-headed Celebrated abroad and reviled at home, the former prime minister struggles to fulfil his ambitions and continuing in the same vein, the writer wasn’t much swayed by considerations of seasonal goodwill (right), as this passage reveals:
… Earlier this year, in an episode that brought joy to the British press, Rupert Murdoch ended his longstanding relationship with the former prime minister over suspicions that he had had an affair with Wendi Deng, then Mr Murdoch's wife. According to sources at NewsCorp, Mr Murdoch pressed the "mute" button during a confrontational phone call, informed colleagues that he was getting "politicians' answers" to his questions, and has never spoken to Mr Blair (who is godfather to one of the couple's children) since. 
Mr Blair roundly denies any impropriety. Asked whether he was (at least) careless about his reputation, he says calmly that it is "not something I will ever talk about-I haven't and I won't", and then bangs his coffee cup so loudly into its saucer that it spills and everyone in the room jumps. But did he find himself in a tangle over his friendship with Ms Deng? A large, dark pool of sweat has suddenly appeared under his armpit, spreading across an expensive blue shirt.
As is The Economist’s practice, there was no by-line. However, Anne McElvoy was the author of a Mail on Sunday report on 21 December, given the succinct title, Why I asked Tony Blair the truth about him and Wendi Murdoch, by journalist who made former Prime Minister sweat in interview for The Economist magazine, in which she explained that she had “interviewed him twice recently on a wide range of subjects for The Economist”. Curiously, the MoS piece was rather more sympathetic to Blair than The Economist’s – compare the conclusions, MoS first:
I suspect that, for all the global glamour, commercial success and boundless self-belief, the most successful ex-Labour leader would like more credit and esteem at home. There is a frustration, even a loneliness about him, which cannot be dealt with by accumulating ever more clients and good causes. Next year, the Chilcot Inquiry will be critical of his handling of the Iraq War – but will also present him with a chance to talk about his mistakes as well as his achievements. He does not need to recant on his world-view, but he should show more openness about his failings and some regret for them. Most of all, Mr Blair needs to deal with a weakness which has come to haunt him in public and private life – he needs to talk straight.
Whereas in The Economist:
Because it is so important to Mr Blair to be right, he cannot admit to failings over the war in Iraq. Yet until he does so, people will continue to mistrust him. That is a shame, for his mission to fight against fundamentalism needs all the resources and energy it can get. He has considerable talents, which he is prepared to devote to his cause … Yet the main asset that any former politician has is moral sway, and because Mr Blair has forfeited so much trust, he has far less credibility than he should have. Some contrition or regret among those ironclad certainties would serve him and his cause better. The late Mo Mowlam, an outspoken minister in the Blair government, was on to something when she observed early in his reign that "the trouble with Tony is that he "thinks he's fucking Jesus." Mr Blair has plenty of the Messiah's self-belief and sense of mission. He could do with a dash of his humility as well.
Again, the MoS’s opening was:
Tony Blair is one of the great alpha politicians this country has produced: a conviction politician who is not afraid to take on big and contentious issues and does not mind a challenge. Yet he remains a puzzle – even to those of us sympathetic to his deft repositioning of the Labour Party, his reformist outlook on public services and his now-unfashionable commitment to Britain’s role in some of the most difficult issues the world faces: notably the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and its remedies.
I used to read The Economist regularly, but now find a print copy at £5 off-puttingly expensive . Their subscriptions are touted as offering big savings, but in terms of copies properly read, allowing for holidays and such and the occasional dull issue, are unlikely in real terms to be that much cheaper. The price of a digital only subscription seems far too high given the marginal cost of its provision. But it might not just be a question of economics. There are few, if any, areas of human knowledge that The Economist isn’t prepared to expound on in a confident style. But on those occasions when the subject was something I actually had some expertise in, I didn’t always find it particularly convincing or quite as well-informed as it would like its readership to think. In this ever more complex world where most of those who can afford to read The Economist are likely to be one kind of knowledge worker or another, perhaps “a dash of humility” would be appropriate.

There were rumours last year that Pearson’s 50% stake in the Economist Group is going to be put up for sale, for example in the Daily Mail on 28 October which also pointed out that “The Economist's annual report shows revenues and profits have been falling since 2012.” Roy Greenslade in the Guardian was sceptical. Since then, The Economist’s chief editor, John Micklethwait, has been recruited by Bloomberg News, his replacement to be announced shortly. I would be surprised if the new editor (or any new owner of the Pearson stake) turns out to be a Blair admirer.

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