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LONDON – News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch on Wednesday downplayed his political influence, expressed his continued admiration for former conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, reiterated he was against too much media regulation and told a media ethics panel to not take all his tweets seriously.
He said he has “never asked a prime minister for anything,” he said about his influence in British politics. He also said: “I take particularly strong pride in the fact that we have never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers.”
Murdoch, dressed in a dark suit and a blue tie, made his comments early Wednesday as he started giving evidence in front of the U.K.-government funded Leveson Inquiry into media ethics and standards. Led by Judge Brian Leveson, the panel has probed the British media’s relationships with politicians, police and the public.
Murdoch said he welcomed the inquiry. “The state of media in the country is of absolute vital interest to all citizens,” he said, denying that he was upset at Prime Minister David Cameron, long seen as a political ally. “There have been some abuses shown. I would say there are many other abuses.”
Murdoch also told lead questioner Robert Jay that he does not believe in phone hacking or private investigators as they often serve as crutches for lazy reporters.
He did say though that he was “jealous” of The Daily Telegraph when it published the spending accounts of members of parliament based on information it had bought, arguing it was in the public interest.
He said he was “disappointed” that the editor of News International owned title The Times “didn’t buy them when they offered [this] to him first.”
The topic of News Corp.’s failed plan to acquire full control of BSkyB also came up again and again.
Son James Murdoch had been questioned Tuesday whether News Corp. tried to influence the regulatory review of the deal.
“I regret that I ever agreed to an IPO,” but that happened in different times, Rupert Murdoch said about BSkyB.
Asked if he was an admirer of Thatcher, Murdoch said yes. “And I remain a great admirer.” Questioned about the support Thatcher got in 1979 from his tabloid, The Sun, as she looked to win the elections, Murdoch said: “I think we all wanted change.”
Asked about his stance on media regulation, Murdoch said: “Clearly there are necessary rules…but they can’t be overdone.”
Questioned about his legendary media business instincts, he said: “Sometimes I’ve been right, sometimes I’ve been wrong – at great cost.” Faced with the suggestion that he has a great aura or charisma that he uses to influence editors and politicians, Murdoch said: “I don’t think I have any aura.” While he always hopes that editors would appreciate and follow his basic line. Does he do it by any aura or charisma? “I don’t think so,” he said.
Asked about acid recent Twitter comments against political enemies, Murdoch said: “Don’t take my tweets too seriously.” The comment drew some laughs from reporters.
More laughs came when Murdoch was asked about his fight against the U.K. newspaper unions and was asked about his will to battle them. “I did not have the will to crush the unions,” he replied. “I might have had the desire,” but it took him a few years to succeed.
The discussion then turned to Murdoch’s involvement in his company’s newspaper business. Among other things, he said he had little personal involvement with the News of the World, focusing more on The Sun, which he said has never been better. “I couldn’t say the same about my competitors,” he added. Murdoch also suggested that people who want to judge his thinking should look at The Sun.
Asked to explain the core values of his newspapers, he said it was to tell the truth and get the attention of the public. “I have great respect for the British public,” he said.
He shrugged off suggestions that he gave instructions on how to cover politics to his newspaper editors. The firing of Times editor Harold Evans came as some staff warned of a rebellion at the paper, he said. Evans once asked him for input, to which Murdoch replied that was not his job, simply urging him to be consistent and not change sides too much, according to Murdoch.
But he did admit to sometimes calling his editors to find out what was going on – out of curiosity. “I’m not good at holding my tongue,” he also acknowledged in that context.
Murdoch arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice here for the hearing on a rainy London morning. He is believed to have prepared for the appearance with the help of advisers, including Joel Klein, the former New York City Schools Chancellor who joined News Corp. last year as executive vp and member of the Office of the Chairman.
On Tuesday, News Corp. deputy COO and Murdoch son James Murdoch told the panel that he was assured that the phone hacking situation was under control when he took over the conglomerate’s U.K. newspaper unit in 2007 and that he didn’t have much interaction with British politicians, even when the conglomerate tried to acquire full control of BSkyB. He also reiterated previous comments that his staff kept key information from him.
James Murdoch’s evidence, which included emails exchanges between U.K. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt as the battle for BSkyB control raged.
The evidence pushed Hunt into the center of a political storm after e-mails indicated a close relationship with Murdoch and company.
Hunt has subsequently asked Leveson to bring forward his dates to give his own side of the story and said he has no intention of resigning from his current cabinet position.
Murdoch senior was scheduled to be questioned in a Wednesday session from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. London time, including lunch and other breaks. He may have to return for more questioning on Thursday. Murdoch last July spoke in front of a parliamentary committee investigating phone hacking, telling it that the appearance made for the “most humble” day of his life.
His Leveson appearance, which started just after news that the U.K. economy had fallen back into recessionary territory in the first quarter with a gross domestic product decline of 0.2 percent, drew a little more interest than his son’s, with more members of the public lining up to follow the proceedings from inside the Royal Courts. Outside the building, about a dozen protesters from the National Union of Journalists London Photographers’ branch weathered the rain. They brought signs saying “Not Fit,” a reference to suggestions from critics that News Corp. was not fit to continue owning its stake in pay TV firm BSkyB. One protester held a caricature depicting Murdoch and Cameron.
Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph reported that a U.K. shareholder called Local Authority Pension Fund Forum has teamed up with the Christian Brothers Investment Service to file a motion calling for News Corp. to oust Rupert Murdoch from his chairman role and appoint an independent chairman to deal with what they called a “lax ethical culture and lack of effective board oversight.”
After a late morning break, the questioning resumed, focusing on Murdoch, his papers and the political influence they exert.
Jay referred to comments made by Lord Heseltine who expressed dismay in 1992 at attempts by politicians to curry favour with media proprietors.
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