London – With a political firestorm cascading over the British government’s ties to his media empire,faced rare public scrutiny about his relationships with elected officials on Wednesday, seeking to deflect suggestions that he sought to use his links to powerful public figures to further corporate commercial interests.
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 his 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 Corporation and 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 Labour 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 decades-long 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 on which he denied allegations 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 keen to rebut allegations 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 inalso include The Sun and the now defunct News of the World, a Sunday tabloid, which Mr. Murdoch closed last 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 Labour and switching to the Conservatives.
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.”
As the media tycoon smoothly parried questions at the inquiry, Britain’s political leaders played out a noisy drama in Parliament and elsewhere, with the Labour 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.
Mr. Hunt, the beleaguered minister, insisted to reporters on Wednesday that he behaved “scrupulously fairly” and “with total integrity” in the BSkyB negotiations.
Prime Minister David Cameron said on Tuesday that he had “full confidence” in Mr. Hunt and repeated that assurance to Parliament on Wednesday.
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.
Earlier, Mr. Hunt’s special adviser, Mr. Smith, who was accused of maintaining clandestine contact with the Murdoch empire, said in a statement on Wednesday that he was resigning from his position in the minster’s office, the BBC reported.
“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,” Mr. Smith said, referring to News Corporation, the New York-based conglomerate that controls Mr. Murdoch’s global media interests.
The political furor over Mr. Hunt erupted after James Murdoch, the media tycoon’s son, testified at the Leveson inquiry for five hours on Tuesday. Mr. Murdoch has been in London since last Thursday, conferring with a coterie of advisers, lawyers and communications consultants behind closed doors.
In recent months, Rupert Murdoch was able to pivot his attention to other pieces of his empire, but over the past couple of weeks he has been almost completely committed to preparing for his London testimony, according to a person close to his company who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Over the last year, the ever-growing scandal has exposed unsavory and sometimes illegal interlocking ties among figures in the government, political leadership, law enforcement and News International, the British newspaper arm of Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation, along with Britain‘s other free-wheeling media outlets. The disclosures on Tuesday cemented concerns that the phone hacking scandal had seeped even more deeply into News Corporation operations.
News International underscored that the 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.
With a market capitalization of about $20 billion, BSkyB offered News Corporation a platform to increase its stake in the lucrative pay-TV business while reducing the importance of its legacy, and problematic, newspaper assets. The company now finds itself in a tricky spot: its 39.1 percent stake in BSkyB is enough to make it responsible for any misfires, like the recent disclosures by Sky News that it had engaged twice in illegal e-mail hacking in pursuit of stories, without having real control.
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 political aide in Mr. Hunt’s who resigned on Wednesday. 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, Mr. 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 bid — but needed “political cover.”
In his statement on Wednesday, Mr. Smith said he did not “recognize all of what Fred Michel said.”
“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.
Government spokesmen suggested that the bantering tone of the e-mails, could have reflected the desire of the aide and the lobbyist to inflate their influence in the affair, and were not necessarily an accurate reflection of Mr. Hunt’s approach.