Rupert Murdoch parried question after question about the extent of his political influence during a lengthy hearing on Wednesday, saying that the popular image of him as a power broker and ruthless backroom dealer is a "myth."
The session, at the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics of the British press, was the first of two for Murdoch. He was quizzed on his dealings with politicians going back over 30 years. The News Corp. CEO was calm and sharp throughout — a far cry from the fuzziness he showed when hauled before Parliament over phone hacking last July.
Two very different stories emerged at the inquiry. Interrogator Robert Jay painted a portrait of a man with intimate connections to every key political player of the day, and asked flatly whether or not Murdoch ever traded endorsements for political and commercial favors. Murdoch, by contrast, said he was not on familiar terms with most politicians, and that his commercial interests played no role whatsoever in his political decisions.
Time and again, Jay read out extracts from diaries or minutes from meetings in which it was claimed that Murdoch talked openly about his horse-trading with the government of the day. Time and again, Murdoch said that such recollections were faulty. Jay pronounced himself skeptical that there was no connection between his backing of political parties and their policy shifts in his favor. Murdoch repeated that this was the case.
"I take particularly strong pride in the fact that we've never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers," he said at one point.
He did, however, say that the backdoor of 10 Downing Street served as a "shortcut" to his London apartments. He did not mean this as a metaphor.
Some of the choicer morsels to emerge from the hearing:
- Murdoch said that he considered phone hacking and the use of private detectives to be examples of "lazy" reporting. But he added that he firmly believed that the lives of celebrities and public figures were fair game in journalism.
- He described himself as having "no commercial interests except the newspapers."
- Murdoch claimed that former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown "declared war" on him in a private phone call after The Sun newspaper switched its allegiance from Brown's Labour party to the Conservatives in 2009. He said that Brown was "not of balanced mind" at the time.
- Murdoch said that The Sun was the purest representation of himself anyone could find in the press: "if you want to judge my thinking, look at the Sun."
- He denied making any deals with Tony Blair, who courted him assiduously in the run-up to his first victory in the 1997 elections. Murdoch said that he didn't remember the three phone calls he had with Blair in the weeks preceding the Iraq War in 2003, which all 175 of his newspapers around the world backed.
- It is "a complete myth," he said, "that I used the influence of the Sun or supposed political power to gain favorable treatment."
Jay said that there seemed to be a lot of evidence on the other side. "Don't you agree that that's a recurring theme?""Well, in the Guardian," Murdoch said, calling them "lies" and saying "resentful" people grab on to them. "They just aren't true."
By the end of the hearing, Jay was signalling that he might want to leave a substantial portion of the questioning for the next day. According to the Guardian's Dan Sabbagh, though, Murdoch was not so keen for the delay.
"Let's get him to get this fucking thing over with today," Sabbagh overheard Murdoch tell his advisers. It was not to be, though, and the hearings are set to continue on Thursday morning.
Murdoch's session came a day after his son James appeared before the same body. At that hearing, newly revealed emails showed that the company was given sensitive and secret government information about the progress of its bid to take over all of broadcaster BSkyB.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron said that Jeremy Hunt, the minister at the center of the scandal, had his full support, and Hunt defiantly said he had done nothing wrong.
In his hearing, Murdoch said that he had never once lobbied Cameron directly about BSkyB.
Below, see a blow-by-blow account of the first day of the Murdoch hearings.
It's begun! Rupert is here, with wife Wendi, son Lachlan, and consigliere Joel Klein.
Murdoch takes the oath.
Murdoch rejects the notion that he is opposed to the inquiry. He says that abuses go further than phone hacking, and says he wants to put "certain myths to bed."
Murdoch asked about his business decisions. He says that he makes 'very long term' decisions. He is also quizzed about his views on Margaret Thatcher. Calling himself a 'great admirer' of hers, he says that everyone wanted 'change' in 1979, when his papers endorsed her.
He's also quizzed about his tweets. "Don't take my tweets too seriously," he says.
Murdoch asked about his purchase of the Times and Sunday Times in 1981. Interrogator Robert Jay reads from recently released documents that showed a secret lunch he had with Thatcher and her top aides. This is where he lobbied Thatcher to let him buy the papers, despite regulatory problems.
"I think this meeting was to inform a chief executive of a company of the likelihood of a change of ownership at an iconic asset," he says.
Murdoch reviewing his papers a lot. He's asked more about his efforts to buy the Times and Sunday Times, stressing that no help was offered by Thatcher, nor did he ask. "I've never asked a Prime Minister for anything," he says. Jay says that it's subtler than that, isn't it? Nothing needs to be directly asked, as long as everyone understands they are on the same page. Murdoch rejects the notion.
Murdoch asked about his pledge to keep the Times and Sunday Times editorially independent. "If a editor is sending a newspaper broke, it is the responsibility for the proprietor to step in," he says.
We have just added a livestream of the proceedings, courtesy of Channel 4 News. Press play!
Jay now talking about the behind the scenes negotiations to take over the Times. He's asked if he agrees with the notion that he implicitly threatened to back out of the bid and let an iconic paper possibly shut down if his bid was referred to the antitrust commission. "Not really," he says, though he allows that it's a "fair" interpretation of the events.
|@ jackmirkinson : Rupert: 'I take particularly strong pride in the fact that we've never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers.' #leveson|
Now we seen to be getting into phone hacking. Murdoch denies claims that he leads by "aura" or "charisma" instead of direct instructions, though he says he leads a relatively decentralized company.
"I try to set an example of ethical behavior," he says.
Murdoch says he improved the newspaper industry in between 1968, when he arrived in the UK, and 1981, when he bought the Times.
He's asked if his main motive is commercial. "No," he says. "It was always to tell the truth. Certainly to interest the public, to get their attention, but always to tell the truth."
Murdoch now talking about his ouster of legendary Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, who has written extensively about the clash. He says he got rid of him not because Evans threatened his editorial goals for the paper but because he was facing a "staff insurrection."
Anyway, he says, "if you want to judge my thinking, look at the Sun.' He claims that the tabloids are where he really exerts his influence, saying he rarely reads the editorials in the Times or Sunday Times.
Everyone takes a breather.
|@ skymarkwhite : Murdoch distancing himself from the News of the World: I was always closer to the Sun #leveson|
"We're still on the influence of editors," Jay says. He asks about Rebekah Wade's assertion that Murdoch knew her cultural, social and political views before he hired her. He says he knew some of them.
"I don't believe in using hacking, I don't believe in using private detectives or whatever. I think that's a lazy way of reporters doing their jobs," he says. But he defends prying into private lives of celebs or public figures. "I would even include press proprietors in that," he says. "I don't think they're entitled to the same privacy as the ordinary man in the street."
And we're back to the 1980s, and Murdoch's tabloid's anti-Labour party stance. Murdoch says it was legitimate to attack then-leader Neil Kinnock over his policy and even "the way he expressed himself."
Murdoch denies ever telling then-Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil that 'we owe a lot' to Thatcher's government. He also says he did not like the Sun's famous "IT'S THE SUN WOT WON IT" headline about the 1992 election, which went for his preferred Conservatives. He calls it "tasteless" and "wrong in fact," saying that the paper doesn't have that kind of power.
"Is it fair to say you generally back the winning side?" Jay asks. "No," Murdoch says. "I'm trying to think of a time when we didn't." He cites the NY Post and Wall Street Journal's opposition to Obama. "I'm talking about the United Kingdom," Jay says. "We operate with the same principles everywhere."
|@ jackmirkinson : Murdoch says he never lets commercial interests influence political endorsements. 'Give me an instance,' he says and slaps the table.|
"You're completely oblivious to the commercial benefits to your company of a certain political party winning an election," Jay asks.
"Yes, absolutely," he says. "I have no commercial interests except the newspapers." (Fox News would disagree, among many others.)
"Don't you owe some duty to your shareholders?"
"They'd like me to get rid of them all," Murdoch says, referring to the newspapers.
We've now reached the Labour party, and the famous love affair between Murdoch and Tony Blair.
While Murdoch remembers his issues with Blair, we're jumping over for a second to UK Prime Minister David Cameron's weekly appearance before the House of Commons. He is sure to be asked a lot of questions about Murdoch, and about his Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is caught in a scandal about his ties to News Corp. and his handling of the BSkyB bid.
Cameron is defending his government as the news breaks that the economy has fallen back into recession, so back to Rupert for a sec. He allows that different parties' policies may affect his company differently, but repeats that he never let that get in the way.
|@ benfenton : Leveson is incredulous that #murdoch didn't even notice that Blair didn't have anything on media ownership in his manifesto.|
Again and again, Jay asks Murdoch if he understands that there was always some subtle negotiation going on with politicians when he met with them. Again and again, Murdoch says they were just talking and there was no political or commercial elephant in the room.
Murdoch also continually rejects the notion that he is any different from other press proprietors.
Over on PMQs, David Cameron is being hammered by Labour party leader Ed Miliband about Jeremy Hunt.
"Hunt wasn't judging this bid, he was helping it," he says.
Cameron swats the question away. It's a particularly shouty session. "Totally pathetic answers!" Miliband says. "If he can't defend the conduct of his own ministers ... he should fire them!"
Cameron says Hunt has "my full support for the excellent job that he does."
Miliband says that until Cameron "comes clean" about his ties to Murdoch, the "sleaze" will not go away. Cameron bellows back, "I don't duck my responsibilities!"
|@ Peston : Rupert Murdoch admits he ordered Sun to support Labour in 97 election after Blair wrote his famous & uncharacteristic eurosceptic column|
More about Blair: anti-union editorials in the Times ("I don't think I read it") and dinners.
Murdoch also denies asking Blair to interfere with his bid for Italian television. "I have my own access" to Italian pols, he says.