News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch said on Wednesday that his globe-spanning TV and newspaper empire does not carry as much political sway as is often believed, telling a British inquiry into media ethics that he was not the power behind the throne often depicted by his enemies.
Speaking softly, deliberately and with dry humor, Murdoch sought to deflate what he described as myths about his business, his agenda and his friendships with those at the pinnacle of British politics.
“If these lies are repeated again and again they catch on, but they just aren’t true,” Murdoch said.
The 81-year-old media baron denied ever calling in favors from British leaders and dismissed the oft-repeated claim that his top-selling daily, the Sun, could swing elections.
“We don’t have that sort of power,” he testified.
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 raised by the phone-hacking scandal that brought down Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid in July last year.
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’s News International — the tabloid’s publisher — has been hit with more than 100 lawsuits over phone hacking, and dozens of reporters and media executives have been arrested.
Showing little equivocation, Murdoch batted away challenges to his ethics by inquiry lawyer Robert Jay.
Asked whether he set the political agenda for his UK editors, he denied it.
Asked whether he had ever used his media influence to boost his business, he denied it.
Asked whether standards at his papers declined when he took them over, he denied it — and then threw in a quip about his rivals.
“The Sun has never been a better paper than it is today,” Murdoch said. “I won’t say the same of my competitors.”
The inquiry was set up by British Prime Minister David Cameron following the scandal’s resurgence in July last year.
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 Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party.
Murdoch made few concessions to his inquisitor.
He denied that former British prime minister Tony Blair had consulted with him on how to discredit then-French president Jacques Chirac in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
He denied strategizing with Blair’s successor, former British prime minister Gordon Brown, on whether to call a snap election. He also denied lobbying Cameron on issues including broadcasting regulations, the ins and outs of which have since helped feed the scandal.
He did reveal a tense telephone exchange with Brown in Sept. 2009 after the tycoon had decided to throw the Sun’s support behind rival Cameron.
“Well, your company has declared war on my government and we have no alternative but to make war on your company,” Murdoch quoted Brown as saying, adding he did not think that the former prime minister “was in a very balanced state of mind.”
Brown released a statement later Wednesday characterizing Murdoch’s version as false.
“I hope Mr Murdoch will have the good grace to correct his account,” Brown said.
Murdoch also owned up to having made a colorful joke first reported by Blair: “If our flirtation is ever consummated, Tony, then I suspect we will end up making love like porcupines — very, very carefully.”
However, he denied that his personal friendship with Blair had led to any favors, thumping the table to punctuate his sentence.
“I never. Asked. Mr Blair. For anything,” he said.
Media-watchers have speculated that Murdoch would seek to inflict political pain on Cameron’s Conservatives, rumors which gained force when his son James gave damning testimony about British UK Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt on Tuesday.
The younger Murdoch released documents that suggested that Hunt, a Cameron ally, had secretly smoothed the way for News Corp’s bid for full control of the BSkyB, a lucrative satellite broadcaster.