Rupert Murdoch Testifies: Denies Ties to British Officials

Confident, deliberate, and combative. Rupert Murdoch faced the Leveson Inquiry. By Mike Giglio.

For the most highly anticipated appearance to date in a public inquiry into Britain’s media crisis that has been dragging on for five months, Rupert Murdoch kept the crowd waiting just a little bit longer, appearing at the courthouse just minutes before the scheduled start as the day’s hearing opened slightly late.

With months’ worth of hype and speculation swirling around the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked Murdoch’s U.K. media empire and shuttered his prized Sunday tabloid, News of the World; with a more recent furor over the headline-grabbing arrests and police investigation into corrupt payments to police and public officials at his flagship daily, the Sun; and with renewed interest over News Corp.’s ties to politicians sparked by last night’s explosive release of emails between a company lobbyist and the U.K. culture secretary, causing the resignation this morning of his top adviser, Murdoch’s questioner, Robert Jay, started instead by focusing on the early stages of the mogul’s rise to dominance on the British newspaper scene and the roots of his alleged political influence.

Murdoch appeared in a crisp white shirt and blue tie, supported in the gallery by his third wife, Wendi Deng, who gained fame during Murdoch’s parliamentary testimony last summer by defending him from an assailant bearing a shaving-cream pie. In contrast to his son James, who appeared shifty and testy at times during his own hearing yesterday, and often responded to questions in an impenetrable management-speak, the senior Murdoch was comfortable and deliberate on the stand, even amiable at times, as when he drew laughs from the audience by joking, “Don’t take my tweets too seriously.”

But Murdoch turned more combative when Jay probed the long-discussed question of how Murdoch’s political and commercial interests influenced his newspapers. Jay produced a copy of the book Good Times, Bad Times, by Sir Harold Evans, the respected former Times editor whom Murdoch ousted following his successful takeover of London’s Times and Sunday Times newspapers in 1981. [Evans is married to Tina Brown, the editor in chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and a contributor to the magazine and website.] Reading from a preface to the July 2011 edition written in response to the phone-hacking scandal, Jay referenced Evans’s contention that Murdoch’s charismatic persona dominated his entire media empire, influencing everything from its endorsements to its reporting methods.

The passage reads: “How much Rupert Murdoch knew and when he knew it may not be pinned down because he exercises what the sociologist Max Weber defined as ‘charismatic authority’, where policy derives from how the leader is perceived by others rather than by instructions or traditions.”

“Do you feel he’s got a point there?” Jay asked.

Murdoch denied this was case, calling his management style “decentralized,” saying he worked to set “an ethical example,” and adding, “I don’t have an aura.”

When pressed by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, the head of the Inquiry, on whether “those who worked for you recognized that you had an appreciation of events that it would be important for them to understand, and that they should therefore take a different line only with caution because of their respect for their views,” Murdoch finally conceded a little ground.

“Well, I would hope so,” he said.

Murdoch also rejected Evans’s assertion that he was deeply involved in the editorial process of his newspapers, and pushed his top editors to support his positions. And he claimed that News Corp. had never pushed its commercial interests on its newspapers.

“I think we’re the only independent newspaper in the business,” he said at one point of the Sun, drawing another small round of laughter from the crowd, though this time it was clear that Murdoch wasn’t joking.

In Evans’s book, which Jay held up before the inquiry, he wrote that Murdoch once told a Times editor, “I give instructions to my editors all over the world—why shouldn’t I in London?”

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Murdoch grew testier still when the topic turned to his purported influence in British politics. Former prime minister Tony Blair is godfather to one of Murdoch’s daughters. He also famously visited the current resident of No. 10 Downing Street, David Cameron, just two days after Cameron took office. As Murdoch testified before Parliament last summer: “I was asked, ‘Could I please come in through the back door.’”

But Murdoch at one point banged the table in response to what he called “sinister” inferences about how he used those relationships.

“I, in 10 years he was in power, never asked Mr. Blair for anything, nor did I receive any favors,” he said at one point.

“I don’t know how many times I have to say that, Mr. Jay, I never take commercial considerations” into his relationship with politicians, Murdoch said at another.

The discussion reached all the way back to Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s so-called Iron Lady prime minister, who served from 1979 to 1990. Murdoch was questioned about recently unveiled documents that revealed a secret meeting between Murdoch and Thatcher, who has long been seen as a kindred spirit of Murdoch’s. The documents proved the existence of the controversial—and previously denied—1981 meeting between the pair as Murdoch was in the process of working around anti-monopoly laws to purchase the Times and Sunday Times, solidifying him as a force in the U.K. news market. Murdoch’s plans for the takeover and argument for avoiding monopoly laws were discussed at the meeting, though some commentators, such as former Thatcher speechwriter John O’Sullivan, have pointed out that the documents contain no smoking gun.

In the meeting, Murdoch also emphasized his political affinities with Thatcher. Jay pressed Murdoch on whether he implicitly expected, in return, her support on his bid. “You see her. You seek to demonstrate to her that you were precisely on the same page politically […] and the understanding was that to the extent that she might help she would. Is that fair?” Jay asked.

“I didn’t ask for any help, and I received none,” Murdoch insisted. “I’ve never asked a prime minister for anything.”