Rupert Murdoch has rejected accusations that he used his media empire to play puppet master to a succession of British prime ministers, electrifying a media inquiry that has shaken the government and unnerved much of the establishment.
“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 on Wednesday, adding that those who say the company exploited its ties to political figures were making “sinister inferences”.
The 81-year-old reserved some of his strongest comments for Gordon Brown, the former UK prime minister, and some of his funniest for Tony Blair.
“If our flirtation is ever consummated, Tony, I suspect we will end up making love like porcupines. Very, very carefully,” said Murdoch.
Brown, he said, had been a friend until he threatened to “declare war” on News Corp over the Sun’s decision to withdraw its support for the Labour Party.
“I did not think he was in a very balanced state of mind,” Murdoch said.
Murdoch’s appearance at the Leveson Inquiry came as Adam Smith, a special adviser to Jeremy Hunt, the UK culture minister, resigned over his dealings with Murdoch’s News Corp.
The resignation came a day after Murdoch’s son, James, released emails to the inquiry that showed that Smith effectively supplied News Corp with information about the progress of its bid to take full control of BSkyB.
It was Hunt’s job to assess whether the government should approve the BSkyB bid for complete control in the face of opposition from other media groups who feared it would give the Murdochs too much influence over the British media.
The bid was dropped in July 2011 amid a scandal over phone-hacking at Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid, the News of the World, which led to the closure of the newspaper and the creation of the Leveson Inquiry.
“I don’t believe in using hacking. I don’t believe in using private detectives or whatever,” said Murdoch.
“I think that’s just a lazy way of reporters not doing their job.”
‘Put myths to bed’
Cameron appointed judge Brian Leveson to examine Britain’s press standards after journalists at the News of the World admitted widespread hacking into phones to generate exclusives.
The media inquiry has become increasingly damaging for the British government and Prime Minister David Cameron, who is already seen to be too close to the Murdochs.
Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from London, said that while the inquiry may implicate previous prime ministers and governments, it could be damaging for the current British government.
That is why Cameron has said that the politicians had gotten too close to the media, Lee said.
“What you did get, overwhelmingly, I think, was the sense that through the years, he’s never really had to go chasing after politicians for support for his own corporate aims because he knew all the time that politicians were going to have to come running to him if they wanted to get elected,” said Lee.
Asked whether he would ever have been “so undeft and cack-handed” as to ask a favour directly of Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister at the time, he said: “I hope not…. I didn’t expect any help from [Thatcher] nor did I ask for any”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Nick Ferrari, a radio presenter who has worked for Murdoch’s empire for years, said he was never instructed to “put something in or to take something out” during his working experience there.
Ferrari has said that Murdoch has a “healthy” interest in news and politics.
Papers released this year showed that he held a secret meeting with Thatcher in 1981 to help secure his acquisition of The Times newspaper.
The revelation that Smith appeared to have sought to help Murdoch in his business dealings go to the heart of the issue in Britain, that Murdoch wields too much influence and that this resulted in a company culture that rode roughshod over rules and regulations.
News Corp said it had been required by law to produce the email documents that revealed the contact with Hunt’s office.
Hunt has now also come under pressure to resign. Speaking to reporters as he left his house early on Wednesday, Hunt said he had behaved “scrupulously fairly” over the deal and had asked for his own appearance at the inquiry to be brought forward so he could clear his name.
On Tuesday, he Tweeted a quote from the “Merchant of Venice” to mark what would have been William Shakespeare’s 448th birthday.
One Tweeter replied, “You need to be worrying about keeping your job … not bards 448.”