LONDON – Rupert Murdoch tried to downplay his political influence in a landmark testimony to a British inquiry Wednesday, even as evidence from his media empire prompted a government aide to resign.
The 81-year-old mogul, speaking on oath during his first appearance at the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, hit out at “sinister inferences” about his ties to British leaders over the past four decades.
“I’ve never asked a prime minister for anything,” the News Corp. chairman said in a spirited performance at the judge-led inquiry at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London.
He said he “loved” newspapers but shareholders in US-based News Corp. wanted him to get rid of his titles, which include The Sun, The Times and Sunday Times in Britain and the Wall Street Journal and New York Post in the United States.
Murdoch also rejected as “untrue” rumours that he was unhappy with current premier David Cameron for ordering the inquiry following the phone-hacking scandal that closed down his News of the World newspaper in July last year.
But as Murdoch was speaking, Adam Smith, a special adviser to culture minister Jeremy Hunt, resigned over claims that he leaked details to News Corp. about the government’s view of its bid to take full control of pay-TV giant BSkyB.
Texts and emails from him to News Corp. executive Frederic Michel emerged during evidence given during Murdoch’s son James on Tuesday, in which Smith apparently gave confidential details and said that Hunt backed the deal.
“I appreciate that my activities at times went too far,” Smith said.
Hunt — who had the responsibility for the decision about whether the BSkyB takeover should be allowed to go ahead — made a statement in parliament rejecting calls for his resignation.
“This is not the time to jump on a political bandwagon. I have strictly followed due process throughout,” he said, although he added that the “volume and tone” of the emails was “clearly not appropriate”.
Cameron told parliament that Hunt, who also has responsibility for the London Olympics, had his “full support”.
But he added that “hand on heart, we all did too much cosying up to Rupert Murdoch, I’m sure we’ll agree.”
At the inquiry, Murdoch rejected suggestions that he had used his ties to previous prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair for the commercial gain of his media empire.
“I think you are making sinister inferences,” the Australian-born tycoon told Robert Jay, the counsel for the inquiry, when he was asked about his ties to former Labour premier Blair.
Blair is godfather to one of Murdoch’s daughters.
“In ten years I never asked Mr Blair for anything, nor indeed did I receive any favours. If you want to check that I think you should call him,” Murdoch said.
When asked about phone-hacking and the use of private investigators by the News of the World, Murdoch said he believed celebrities and politicians were “not entitled to the same privacy as the ordinary man in the street.”
The 168-year-old Sunday tabloid was forced to shut down after a wave of revelations that its staff illegally accessed the voicemail messages of a murdered teenage girl and crime victims as well as dozens of public figures.
Murdoch’s testimony is his highest profile appearance in Britain since he appeared before a parliamentary committee in July last year, when a protester attacked him with a foam pie.
His Chinese-born wife Wendi — who attacked the protester with her shoe at the time — also attended the inquiry on Wednesday.
Giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry on Tuesday, James Murdoch, the deputy chief operating officer of News Corp., said he had discussed the proposed BSkyB takeover with Cameron at a 2010 Christmas party.