Tony Blair’s disturbing hold over the political and media elites of America can be traced back to 9/11 and the way he catapulted himself to the forefront of world attention.
To British audiences his tribute to the “People’s Princess” might be regarded as one of the defining soundbites of his Premiership but in the USA he gained the accolade of being the first western leader to make sense of the unfolding drama surrounding the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.
While President Bush was circling in Air Force One and later being kept secure in a bunker at a US defence base, Blair was reaching out to a global television audience, becoming the first international statesman to speak coherently and with real authority about the dangers that mass terrorism posed to democratic nations.
As we learn more about the inner workings of the Blair government it is now clear that it was touch and go as to whether he would be able seize the moment. But within an hour and a half of the first plane hitting the north tower the Prime Minister was being broadcast live on television networks around the world.
Throughout what suddenly became a hectic lead-up to a pre-arranged speech to the annual TUC Conference in Brighton, Blair never lost sight of the fact that he had an unrivalled chance to make his mark on the international stage. Blair’s staff were finishing off a text which was due to be delivered within the hour just as the two hijacked planes were being flown into the World Trade Centre.
I was among the reporters crowding round television sets in TUC’s media centre as the world’s focus switched to the unfolding drama in New York. Our immediate thought was that his speech would in all probability be cancelled and that he would return to London immediately.
Blair’s biographer Anthony Seldon wrote subsequently a compelling account of the sense of panic among the Prime Minister aides next door in the Grand Hotel. Blair and his staff feared that Downing Street might also be a target for an aerial attack and he was desperate to return to London to take command.
But everything was in place for Blair to seize the moment; the planned live coverage of the speech meant that with a little advance warning other news networks around the world could easily link up to Brighton. Official reaction was sparse as governments scrambled to interpret what was going but the word went out that Blair was about to give Britain’s first response.
However tragic the circumstances Blair’s director of communications Alastair Campbell needed no guidance on how to respond: his task was to ensure that Blair’s authority was enhanced. The prepared text was abandoned and the Prime Minister’s instant attempt to address the challenges facing democratic nations could hardly be bettered:
“This mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today. It is perpetrated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of human life and we, the democracies of the world, are going to have to come together to fight it together and eradicate this evil completely from our world.”
Later that evening on his return to Downing Street, Blair spoke again to reporters and reinforced his call for solidarity with the United Sates, a soundbite which was replayed time and again on American news channels:
“This is not a battle between the United States of America and terrorism, but between the free and democratic world and terrorism. We therefore here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy. We, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from our world.”
Right on cue images were supplied to illustrate the standing “shoulder to shoulder” soundbite. Next morning the pictures reinforced the message as the band of the Coldstream Guards performed the American national anthem the Star-Spangled Banner outside Buckingham Palace during the Changing of the Guard.
Campbell’s orchestration was a masterful demonstration of Blair’s understanding of the demands of the electronic news media and it is little wonder that their ability to exploit a global television audience became the envy of many other governments around the world. End Nicholas Jones 5.9.2011