Rupert Murdoch Denies Seeking Political Favors; Government Aide Resigns

'I've Never Asked a Prime Minister for Anything,' News Corp. CEO Says

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Rupert Murdoch told a media-ethics inquiry triggered by the phone-hacking scandal at his U.K. unit that he never sought favors from a prime minister to bolster News Corp.'s commercial interests.

Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch Credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

News Corp.doesn't consider business needs when deciding which politicians to back in its newspapers, Mr. Murdoch said in London today. The 81-year-old chairman spoke as the company's closeness to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's cabinet led to the resignation of a government adviser today.

"I've never asked a prime minister for anything," Mr. Murdoch said after questions about his New York-based company's political ties that went back 30 years. "I took a particularly strong pride in the fact we've never pushed our commercial interests in our papers."

Mr. Murdoch's son, News Corp. Deputy Chief Operating Officer James Murdoch, yesterday gave the inquiry details on the company's interactions with lawmakers when it was seeking approval to buy the 61% of British Sky Broadcasting Group it didn't already own. U.K. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the minister who had to approve the deal, faced calls in Parliament today to resign after emails at the hearing showed either Mr. Hunt or his aides leaked information to News Corp. during their deliberations.

Mr. Hunt's special adviser, Adam Smith, stepped down today, saying he had "gone too far" in his contacts with News Corp. Mr. Hunt told lawmakers today that while he had authorized contact, "I didn't know the volume of those communications or the tone of those communications."

Mr. Cameron has "full confidence" in Hunt, the premier's spokesman, Steve Field, told reporters yesterday.

News Corp. abandoned its 7.8 billion-pound ($12.6 billion) bid to buy all of BSkyB at the peak of the phone-hacking scandal last year.

The inquiry began after evidence emerged that voicemail interceptions by News Corp.'s News of the World tabloid were rampant, and police opened probes into bribery and computer hacking by journalists at its other U.K. titles. The review is shedding light on the extent of News Corp.'s political influence since Mr. Murdoch started buying British newspapers in 1969.

Some phone-hacking victims told the inquiry that News Corp.'s U.K. unit was able to cover up the scandal for years due to its links to lawmakers and police.

Rupert Murdoch, testifying under oath, said abuses at his U.K. unit went beyond voice-mail interceptions by journalists. He denied speculation that he hadn't forgiven Mr. Cameron for calling for the inquiry last year. The comments are Mr. Murdoch's first public testimony since he was forced to appear before a Parliamentary committee probing the scandal in July, a day he called the "most humble" of his life.

Mr. Murdoch, asked about the expansion of his U.K. media business in the 1980s, said his newspapers' reporting in Britain has never included political bias.

Asked about a 1981 lunch with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, when he was buying the Times of London, or his contacts with Tony Blair while Mr. Blair was prime minister, Mr. Murdoch said he wasn't trying to curry favor.

"In the 10 years he was in power, I never asked Mr. Blair for anything, nor indeed did I receive any favors," Mr. Murdoch said. "I try very hard to set an example for ethical behavior."

James Murdoch said yesterday that he discussed the BSkyB bid with Mr. Cameron at a private Christmas dinner in 2010. The "tiny side conversation" took place two days after Cameron had removed responsibility for deciding whether to allow the takeover from Business Secretary Vince Cable, Mr. Murdoch said. Mr. Cable had been recorded by undercover journalists saying he had "declared war" with the Murdoch family.

Rupert Murdoch said in testimony today that he has "no recollection" of discussing the BSkyB bid with Mr. Cameron during a July 2010 meeting between the men. "In any event, I am certain that I did not ask him for any regulatory favors," he said.

Since July, News Corp.'s internal committee investigating phone hacking and bribery at the U.K. unit has "actively cooperated" with London's Metropolitan Police and the U.S. Department of Justice, turning over evidence of possible illegal activity, Rupert Murdoch said today in a statement to the committee.

"This has led to the arrests of a number of News International employees," Mr. Murdoch said, referring to the U.K. unit. "Our cooperation is continuing to date."

In July, Mr. Cameron said "the clock has stopped" on Rupert Murdoch's influence over British politics. He made the comment the same month that ex-News of the World Editor Andy Coulson, who resigned in 2007, was arrested in the phone-hacking probe. Mr. Coulson was Mr. Cameron's press chief until January 2011, when he quit as a result of the scandal.

Regulator Ofcom is examining whether News Corp. is "fit and proper" to own its 39% stake in BSkyB, Britain's biggest pay-TV provider. The watchdog opened a separate probe into its Sky News channel this week to investigate email hacking by a reporter.

Rupert Murdoch said the company doesn't try to influence the content of its newspapers.

When Mr. Murdoch bought the nation's Times and Sunday Times, he pledged they would have editorial independence, something he told the inquiry today was guaranteed by an Act of Parliament. Harold Evans, who had won a series of awards editing the Sunday Times, was appointed editor of the daily paper. He left after a year.

In his memoirs, Mr. Evans said Mr. Murdoch told an executive at the paper he didn't see why he shouldn't tell the Times editor what to do. Mr. Murdoch denied that today, adding that Mr. Evans had come to him seeking editorial direction and he'd refused to give it.

-- Bloomberg News --

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