Murdoch quizzed over links to UK leaders
London - Rupert Murdoch batted away accusations on Wednesday that he used his vast media empire to play puppet master to a succession of British leaders, electrifying a media inquiry that has shaken faith in Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.
The 81-year-old media mogul’s appearance is the high point in an inquiry which has laid bare collusion between ministers and News Corp, reawakening decades of concern over the cosy ties between big money, the media and power in Britain.
Murdoch was immediately asked about his relationship to politics and British “toffs”, a reference to his regular attacks on Britain’s gilded establishment which the Australian-born mogul has lampooned as snobbish and inefficient.
“I have never asked a prime minister for anything,” Murdoch said with steely calm when asked about his links to former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, one of his favourite British leaders.
“It is only natural for politicians to reach out to editors and sometimes proprietors, if they are available, to explain what they are doing. But I was only one of several.”
Some politicians had expected Murdoch, who has been courted by prime ministers and presidents for decades, to come out fighting, having been on the back foot for almost a year over a newspaper phone-hacking scandal that has convulsed his empire.
“He’s the master of the barbed quote, the one-liner,” Neil Chenoweth, a veteran Australian investigative journalist who has written two books on Murdoch, told Reuters.
“He just lets it drop, and his delivery makes it absolutely lethal.”
But Murdoch appeared calm and laconic, even provoking chuckles from some of the 70 lawyers, family members and journalists packed into the Victorian gothic courtroom when he cracked a joke about a disgraced former British minister who lied in court.
Murdoch, wearing a bright blue tie, said the influence that owners have over their newspapers is often overestimated. He even tried to play down his legendary reputation as the world’s most powerful and menacing media tycoon.
“Do I have an aura or a charisma? I don’t think so,” he said though when asked about his influence at The Sun newspaper, one of his favourites, he admitted: “I’m a curious person. I’m not good at holding my tongue.”
Revelations last July about widespread illegal phone-hacking at one of Murdoch’s British tabloids convulsed his media empire, exposed the close ties between the upper echelons of Britain’s establishment and provoked a wave of public anger.
Politicians who had previously courted the media owner lined up to condemn his involvement in Britain.
On Wednesday the scandal claimed a political scalp at the heart of the government, when an advisor to the media and culture minister quit over the inquiry’s suggestion he had helped News Corp in an attempt to secure a $12bn takeover of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
Explosive emails suggesting Media Secretary Jeremy Hunt had sought to help Murdoch in his business dealings - revealed during questioning of Murdoch’s son James on Tuesday - go to the heart of the accusations that Murdoch wields too much influence, creating a company culture that rode roughshod over rules.
The emails appear to show that Hunt briefed News Corp on the thinking of regulators and leaked confidential information, while at the same time acting for the government in deciding whether to approve the takeover.
The pressure on Hunt dominated the local news agenda on Wednesday, with newspaper front pages declaring that the Murdochs had declared revenge on the government.
The front page of the left-leaning Guardian described Hunt as the “Minister for Murdoch”.
News Corp said it had been required by law to produce the email documents that revealed the contact with Hunt.
US-based News Corp, owner of Fox Television and the Wall Street Journal, eventually pulled its bid to buy the 61% of BSkyB that it did not already own after intense political and public pressure because of the wrongdoing at its newspapers.
Cameron appointed Judge Brian Leveson to examine Britain’s press standards after journalists at Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid admitted widespread hacking into phone messages to generate scoops.
Cameron is himself already under pressure after a series of mishaps by his government. To compound his problems, economic data released on Wednesday morning showed Britain has slipped back into recession.
Murdoch is likely to face questions over how the phone-hacking came about, but will also face detailed questioning about his relationship with politicians.
He was the first newspaper boss to visit Cameron after he took office in 2010 - entering via the back door - and politicians from all parties have lived in fear for decades of his press and what they might reveal about their personal lives.
Labour politician Chris Bryant, who accepted damages from Murdoch’s British newspaper group after the News of the World admitted hacking his phone, told Reuters the media mogul had dominated the political landscape for decades.
“You have only got to watch Rupert Murdoch’s staff with him to see how his air of casual violence intimidates people,” he said.
“His presence in the British political scene has similarly intimidated people by offering favour to some and fear to all.”
Murdoch’s influence over prime ministers goes back decades. Papers released this year showed he held a secret meeting with then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1981 to secure his acquisition of The Times of London.
Tony Blair was godfather to one of Murdoch’s daughters, Gordon Brown was a personal friend of the Australian-born businessman, and Cameron employed as his personal spokesperson a former Murdoch editor who was forced to quit over the hacking scandal.