LONDON – News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch defended his globe-spanning, half-a-century long media career Wednesday, telling an inquiry into U.K. media ethics that he never called in favors from the powerful people his papers covered.
Speaking softly, deliberately and with dry humor, Murdoch parried one question after the other about the influence his dominant media operations had in lobbying lawmakers, favoring politicians or allegedly engineering sweetheart deals.
The litany of denials by the 81-year-old media baron was long but confidently delivered.
"I've never asked a prime minister for anything," he said after being questioned whether he had asked then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to support his bid for the Times newspapers in 1981.
Murdoch was being quizzed under oath before an inquiry run by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, who is examining the relationship between British politicians and the press, a key question raised by the phone hacking scandal that brought down Murdoch's News of the World tabloid.
Revelations of widespread illegal behavior at the top-selling Sunday publication rocked Britain's establishment with evidence of media misdeeds, police corruption and too-cozy links between the press and politicians. Murdoch's News International have been hit with over 100 lawsuits over phone hacking and dozens of reporters and media executives have been arrested.
Showing little equivocation, Murdoch batted away challenges to his ethics by inquiry lawyer Robert Jay.
Asked whether he set the political agenda for his U.K. editors, he denied it.
Asked whether he'd ever used his media influence to boost his business, he denied it.
Asked whether standards at his papers declined when he took them over, he denied it — and threw in a quip about his rivals.
"The Sun has never been a better paper than it is today," Murdoch said. "I won't say the same of my competitors."
The inquiry was set up by Prime Minister David Cameron following the scandal's resurgence in July. Murdoch's testimony was among the most heavily anticipated — not least because of his close links to generations of British politicians, both from Cameron's Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party.
Four hours into his testimony, Murdoch largely held his fire, making few concessions to his inquisitor.
He denied that former Prime Minister Tony Blair of the Labour Party had consulted with him on how to discredit French leader Jacques Chirac in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He denied strategizing with Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, on whether to call a snap election. And he denied lobbying Cameron on issues including broadcasting regulations, the ins-and-outs of which have since helped feed the scandal.
He did allow having made a colorful joke reported by Blair: "If our flirtation is ever consummated, Tony, then I suspect we will end up making love like porcupines, very very carefully."
But he denied that his personal friendship with Blair had led to any favors, thumping the table to punctuate his sentence.
"I never. Asked. Mr. Blair. For anything," he said.
Media-watchers have speculated that Murdoch would seek to inflict political pain on the Cameron's Conservatives, rumors which gained force when his son James gave damning testimony about British Olympics czar Jeremy Hunt on Tuesday. The younger Murdoch released documents that suggested that Hunt had secretly smoothed the way for News Corp.'s proposed takeover of British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC, a lucrative satellite broadcaster.
Hunt's political aide Adam Smith resigned Wednesday, saying he was responsible for the perception that News Corp. had "too close a relationship" with Hunt's department for culture, media and sport. Smith said he had acted without Hunt's authorization, although there was immediate skepticism of how a special adviser could have acted so independently.
Murdoch was cooperative, but there was a healthy helping of the phrase "I don't remember," particularly when confronted with potentially embarrassing anecdotes about remarks he'd allegedly made over the years.
At one point, Jay quizzed Murdoch about a gleeful comment in which he took credit for smearing his left-wing opponents.
"If I said that, I'm afraid it was the influence of alcohol," Murdoch replied.
Throughout the hearing, Murdoch attacked the idea that he traded on his political influence, calling it a "complete myth. One I want to put to bed once and for all."
So determined was he that at one point Murdoch seemed to claim he was totally blind to business considerations when deciding which politicians to back.
"You're completely oblivious to the commercial benefits to your company of a particular party winning an election. Is that really the position?" asked a skeptical-sounding Jay.
"Yes," Murdoch said. "Absolutely."
Murdoch's testimony resumes on Thursday.
Inquiry website: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk
Murdoch's witness statement: http://bit.ly/IDp5rc