LONDON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch rejected accusations on Wednesday 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.
The appearance before a judge by the world’s most powerful media mogul was a defining moment in a scandal that has laid bare collusion between ministers, police and Murdoch’s News Corp (NWSA.O), reigniting long-held concerns over the close ties between big money, the media and power in Britain.
Unlike an appearance before parliament last year when Murdoch appeared at times painfully slow to answer questions, the 81-year-old remained calm and considered throughout, saying he wished to use the hearing to put some myths straight.
“I have never asked a prime minister for anything,” he said.
He was also asked about his relationship with politics and British “toffs”, a reference to his regular attacks on Britain’s gilded establishment, which the Australian-born tycoon has lampooned as snobbish and inefficient.
Cameron reluctantly ordered the inquiry last July as a phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid spiralled out of control, forcing him to side against the media empire that helped propel him into power a year earlier.
He is now suffering his worst period since he took power, with Murdoch’s Sun and Times papers particularly critical, and facing calls to sack a minister accused of colluding with News Corp. He told a raucous session of parliament on Wednesday that politicians from all parties had become too close to the magnate.
“I think on all sides of the House there’s a bit of a need for a hand on heart,” he told a chamber of jeering opposition lawmakers. “We all did too much cosying up to Rupert Murdoch.”
Cameron and at least two former Prime Ministers are expected to appear for questioning in the coming months.
Under questioning, Murdoch appeared in control, at times drawing chuckles from some of the 70 lawyers, family members and journalists packed into the Victorian gothic courtroom when he cracked jokes about the destruction of unions.
The man who has for years portrayed himself as an underdog, said he had simply tried to shine a light on the country on the behalf of the working classes.
One member of the public who queued in the rain to see the man who had dominated British political life for forty years said he had entered the courtroom hostile and left quite impressed.
“He’s an old man,” Ron, a 76-year-old retired banker, said. “I think he’s stood up to it quite well.”
While Murdoch denied influencing the editorial stance of his Times papers, he did admit that anyone seeking to understand his opinion should “look at the Sun”. “I‘m not good at holding my tongue,” he added.
He also shed some light on recent British political history, saying that he had been a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher but less impressed by her successor John Major, whom he could not remember meeting.
He reserved some of his strongest comments for former Prime Minister Gordon Brown 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,” he admitted telling Blair who ruled from 1997 to 2007.
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.
Moving on to the current government, he was asked if as reported he had initially found Cameron to be lightweight.
“No. Not then,” Murdoch replied, adding that he had not found it strange that Cameron took time out of his own private holiday to meet him on a yacht off a Greek island in 2008.
“I’ve explained that politicians go out of their way to impress people in the press,” he said. “That’s the game.”
Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff told Reuters he thought the News Corp boss had performed brilliantly. “I’d like to see fireworks as much as the next guy but that hasn’t happened,” he said. “Murdoch is very much on his game.”
Cameron ordered senior judge Brian Leveson to conduct a media inquiry last year to examine the explosive revelations that staff at Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid used widespread illegal phone hacking to generate exclusive stories.
The scandal and the hacking of sometimes vulnerable members of the public provoked a wave of public anger, prompting politicians who had previously courted the media owner to line up and condemn his involvement in Britain.
The uproar prompted U.S.-based News Corp, owner of Fox Television and the Wall Street Journal, to eventually withdraw its $12 billion bid to buy the rest of the highly profitable satellite broadcaster BSkyB BSY.L that it did not already own.
On Wednesday the scandal claimed a political scalp at the heart of the government when an adviser to the media and culture minister quit over the suggestion he had helped News Corp in the attempt to secure the BSkyB takeover.
The appearance of collusion goes to the heart of the accusations that Murdoch wields too much influence, creating a company culture that rode roughshod over rules.
The minister, previously seen as a rising star in the right-leaning Conservative Party, said he would clear his name.
The admission ramped up the pressure on Cameron, who has been hit by a string of mistakes in recent weeks. To compound his problems, economic data released on Wednesday morning showed that Britain had slipped back into recession.
He also has his own questions to answer about Murdoch, after he employed as his personal spokesman a former Murdoch editor who quit over the hacking scandal.
Murdoch was the first newspaper boss to visit Cameron after he took office in 2010 - entering via the back door.
On Wednesday, hordes of photographers chased Murdoch’s car as he was driven away from the central London court. He will return on Thursday to continue to explain his complex ties to Britain.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton; additional reporting by Paul Sandle, Paul Hoskins, Drazen Jorgic and Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Peter Graff and Giles Elgood