In Testimony, Murdoch Plays Down His Political Pull

With a political firestorm cascading over the British government’s ties to his media empire, Rupert Murdoch faced rare public scrutiny about his relationships with elected officials on Wednesday, and sought to deflect suggestions that he tried to use his links to powerful public figures to further corporate commercial interests.

Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO of News Corporation
Don Emmert | AFP | Getty Images
Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO of News Corporation

His appearance at the so-called Leveson inquiry came a day after testimony implicated a senior cabinet minister, or at least an aide claiming to speak for him, in a covert effort to win approval for Mr. Murdoch’s company’s $12 billion bid to take over the BSkyB network. The aide involved in the negotiations, Adam Smith, said on Wednesday that he was resigning.

A trove of e-mails, released at the same inquiry on Tuesday, pointed to hand-in-glove collaboration between a lobbyist for Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporationand the office of Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, the official designated to pass judgment on the Murdoch proposal for full control of BSkyB.

But during a raucous and confrontational session of Parliament on Wednesday, Mr. Hunt rejected opposition calls for his resignation and denied that he had acted improperly in his dealings with Mr. Murdoch.

He also assailed the Labor opposition over its own ties to Mr. Murdoch, particularly those of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, underscoring the importance that successive British administrations have attached to securing the endorsement of Mr. Murdoch’s tabloid daily, The Sun, for their electoral aspirations.

The BSkyB deal, which would have crowned Mr. Murdoch’s 60-year media career, was scuttled last year as the scandal over illicit phone hacking at his British newspapers exploded, and now appears out of his reach for years, if not permanently.

In opening testimony on Wednesday, Mr. Murdoch was not pressed on those negotiations. Instead, he was invited to respond to questions dating back over his longtime interests in the British press, his philosophy of management and his relationship with politicians.

The government’s lead attorney for the inquiry, Robert Jay, pursued a chronological line of questioning beginning with Mr. Murdoch’s entry into the British newspaper market in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Much of the questioning centered on meetings with British political leaders and the pledges Mr. Murdoch had made not to influence his newspapers’ editorial policies.

He acknowledged meetings, dinners and shared quips with a series of prime ministers, but sought to dismiss suggestions that he wielded any influence.

“I don’t know many politicians,” he said, on one of many occasions when he denied accusations from Mr. Jay that his newspapers supported politicians whose policies might offer him some commercial benefit. As to suggestions that his power might be more subtle than such obvious exchanges, he responded, “I’m afraid I don’t have much subtlety about me.”

Mr. Murdoch, 81, appeared to be energetic and alert, jogging to his desk at the end of one short break, and keen to dispute assertions with which he did not agree.

He testified under oath like other witnesses at the inquiry, identifying himself by his full name, Keith Rupert Murdoch. On occasion, he seemed laconic and cautious in his responses to Mr. Jay, mildly disputing suggestions that he ran his companies as a charismatic figure. “Aura? Charisma? I don’t think so,” he said.

He said he welcomed the opportunity to appear at the inquiry to “put some myths to bed.”

Asked about a Twitter message he had sent recently referring to “right wingers and toffs” opposed to him, he replied: “Don’t take my tweets too seriously.” What he had meant in the message was that “the extremists on both sides were piling in on me,” he said.

The initial questioning went back as far as Mr. Murdoch’s relationship with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while he was acquiring leading British newspapers, including The Times of London, in 1981. But Mr. Murdoch seemed eager to rebut accusations that he had sought political cover for his entry into the British newspaper market.

“I have never asked a prime minister for anything,” Mr. Murdoch said. “I did not expect any help from her. Nor did I ask for any.”

“I never let my commercial interests enter into any political considerations in elections,” he said.

Once he had acquired The Times of London and its stable mate, The Sunday Times, Mr. Murdoch said he never gave instructions to the editors of his British publications. The Murdoch newspapers in Britain also include The Sun and the now defunct News of the World, a Sunday tabloid that Mr. Murdoch closed in July as it emerged as the epicenter of the hacking scandal.

Mr. Murdoch said he “did not have enough to do with The News of the World. That was my fault.”

With one anecdote, though, he acknowledged the enormous power that British politicians ascribed to The Sun in swinging votes their way. Shortly before Britain’s last general election two years ago, The Sun announced that it was ending a long period of support for Labor and switching to the Conservatives.

Valerie Everett

At that time, Gordon Brown was prime minister and Mr. Murdoch recounted a meeting at which Mr. Brown responded aggressively.

“Your company has made war on my government,” Mr. Murdoch quoted Mr. Brown as saying. “We have no alternative but to make war on your company.”

He was also asked about an occasion in 2008 when Mr. Cameron, then the leader of the opposition, made a detour on a private plane from a planned vacation in Turkey to meet with Mr. Murdoch aboard a yacht moored off the Greek island of Santorini.

“Politicians go out of their way to impress people in the press,” he said, describing such encounters as “part of the democratic process.”

“I like meeting ... let’s call them our leaders. Some impress me more than others,” he added.

As Mr. Murdoch smoothly parried questions at the inquiry, Britain’s political leaders played out a noisy drama in Parliament and elsewhere, with the Labor opposition seeking to pile pressure on the government by depicting Tuesday’s disclosures at the Leveson hearings as only the latest in a catalog of errors.

Prime Minister David Cameron said on Tuesday that he had “full confidence” in Mr. Hunt and repeated that assurance to Parliament on Wednesday. But, almost as an aside, he made no secret of the influence that British politicians believed Mr. Murdoch could wield. “I think hand on heart, we all did a bit too much cosying up to Rupert Murdoch,” he said.

For his part, Mr. Hunt told Parliament: “Throughout, I have strictly followed due process.” He said it was “categorically not the case” that News Corporation had a “back-channel” to influence the negotiations about BSkyB.

Mr. Hunt was speaking after his special adviser, Mr. Smith, announced his resignation in a statement saying, “I appreciate that my activities at times went too far and have, taken together, created the perception that News Corporation had too close a relationship with the department, contrary to the clear requirements set out by Jeremy Hunt and the permanent secretary that this needed to be a fair and scrupulous process.”

“Whilst I firmly believe that the process was in fact conducted scrupulously, fairly, as a result of my activities it is only right for me to step down as special adviser to Jeremy Hunt,” Mr. Smith said.

The political furor erupted after James Murdoch, the media tycoon’s son, testified at the Leveson inquiry for five hours on Tuesday about issues including the latest trove of emails.

News International underscored that 161 pages of e-mails had been subpoenaed as part of the inquiry, not volunteered, but some critics saw an ancillary benefit in the day’s events to the Murdoch strategy in the scandal, since the disclosures about apparent cronyism in the BSkyB bid had the effect of shifting some of the focus to the government.

In the e-mails, Frédéric Michel, News Corporation’s chief lobbyist in Britain, was depicted as pushing relentlessly for government approval of a News Corporation takeover of the 61 percent stake that it did not already own in BSkyB, Britain’s leading satellite TV network. The network generates billion-dollar annual profits and is increasingly a serious competitor to the BBC.

The deal was vehemently opposed by many competing media organizations and by others who argued that Mr. Murdoch, with control of publications that had 40 percent of Britain’s total newspaper circulation, already had a degree of influence and power, particularly over politicians, that was unhealthy for Britain.

Still, Mr. Cameron assigned Mr. Hunt quasi-judicial powers to approve the takeover.

The e-mails tracked an intense back-and-forth during that period between Mr. Michel and Mr. Smith, the aide to Mr. Hunt. Mr. Smith’s e-mails depict Mr. Hunt as an avid supporter of the BSkyB takeover and ready, in effect, to manipulate the approval process in the Murdochs’ favor, in part by giving the lobbyist — and through him, James Murdoch — advance notice of government moves.

In one of the messages, the Hunt aide told the Murdoch lobbyist that he had “managed to get some info” on what Mr. Hunt would say about the bid in Parliament the next day, adding, in brackets, “although absolutely illegal!”

That and other messages were forwarded to James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s 39-year-old son and until recently the head of the family’s media interests in Britain, who has maintained in earlier appearances before the inquiry that he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing on his watch. On Tuesday, he responded to questions about the “absolutely illegal!” comment with what appeared to be a weary impatience. “I thought it was a joke,” he said, adding that the use of an exclamation point confirmed it. “It’s a wink, a joke,” he said.

Other e-mails had the aide assuring the lobbyist that Mr. Hunt was “keen to get to the same objective” as the Murdochs — approval of the takeover — but needed “political cover.”

In his statement on Wednesday, Mr. Smith said he did not “recognize all of what Fred Michel said.”

Ravi Somaiya and Sarah Lyall contributed reporting from London, and Amy Chozick from New York.