London: News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch defended his globe-spanning, half-a-century long media career Wednesday, telling an official inquiry into UK media ethics that he never gave his editors orders on who to back or used his political sway for financial gain.
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, setting the news agenda, favoring certain politicians and benefiting from allegedly sweetheart business deals.
"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 emerging amid 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 issued a litany of denials at Wednesday's session.
Asked whether he had set the political agenda for his UK editors, Murdoch denied it.
"I've never given instructions to the Times or the Sunday Times," he said.
Asked whether he'd ever used his media influence to boost his business, he denied it.
"We've never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers," he said.
Asked whether standards at his papers declined when he took them over, he emphatically denied it.
"Absolutely not," he said. "The Sun has never been a better paper than it is today. I won't say the same of my competitors."
Buffeted by the phone hacking scandal, Prime Minister David Cameron had called for the public inquiry into media ethics. 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.
Two hours into his testimony, Murdoch largely held his fire. Quizzed on the rumors that the 81-year-old media tycoon was seeking revenge on Cameron, Murdoch was coy.
"Did I say that? Is it in my witness statement?" he asked.
Inquiry lawyer Robert Jay pressed again.
The rumors were "untrue," Murdoch finally said.
Speculation that Murdoch was seeking to inflict political pain on the Cameron's Conservatives mounted Tuesday when his son James gave damning testimony about British Olympics czar Jeremy Hunt. The younger Murdoch released documents that suggested that the Conservative minister had secretly smoothed the way for News Corp.'s proposed takeover of British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC, a lucrative satellite broadcaster.
Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith resigned Wednesday, saying he'd created a perception in his emails 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.
The rumors of revenge have also been fed by Murdoch's messages posted to Twitter, in particular one that attacked "old toffs and right wingers who still want last century's status quo" -- a transparent dig at Britain's Conservative Party.
Murdoch, however, said he was criticizing extremists on both sides of the UK's political spectrum.
"Don't take my tweets too seriously," Murdoch told Jay, sending a ripple of laughter across the inquiry room at London's Royal Courts of Justice.
Hunt, the most senior government official dedicated to the 2012 London Olympics, has denied behaving improperly. On Wednesday he promised that he would make a "very, very determined effort to show that I behaved with total integrity."
Speaking ahead of Murdoch's testimony, the judge leading the inquiry appealed for people not to make assumptions about what Hunt was up to.
"It is very important to hear every side of the story before drawing conclusions," Leveson warned.
First Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 18:46