LONDON -- The media empire of Rupert Murdoch had extensive and possibly inappropriate contacts with leading British politicians at a time when his giant News Corp. was mounting a takeover bid of broadcaster BSkyB, according to evidence placed before a judge Tuesday.
News Corp. executives, including Murdoch's son James, were in regular communication with the office of Jeremy Hunt, the government minister in charge of deciding whether the bid to buy BSkyB was permissible under anti-monopoly rules. According to evidence presented by the lead lawyer in a judge-led inquiry into media ethics, Hunt's office passed on tidbits and comments by Hunt to News Corp., which critics say could be improper inside information.
The revelations came during a full day of testimony by James Murdoch before the inquiry, which was launched in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked News Corp. and shaken Britain’s political establishment.
The younger Murdoch began his testimony Tuesday by insisting he had no idea how widespread the practice of intercepting private voicemails was at the News of the World, the sensation-seeking tabloid that tapped into the cellphone of a kidnapped teenager who was later found slain. Police say that potentially hundreds of people had their phones illegally hacked into by the News of the World.
Murdoch also testified that he met Prime Minister David Cameron on a dozen occasions, some of them social ones. Murdoch sought to downplay those contacts, which occurred before and after Cameron became prime minister.
"I haven't actually spent that much time with politicians personally," said Murdoch, whose father has been a regular guest of British prime ministers going back a quarter of a century.
During at least one of the meetings with Cameron, Murdoch acknowledged, he and the prime minister had a "tiny side conversation" about News Corp.'s bid for BSkyB. But, Murdoch said, it did not amount to an actual discussion of the issue.
More extensive was Murdoch's contact with Hunt's office, which briefed an advisor to Murdoch about Hunt's favorable stand on aspects of News Corp.'s BSkyB bid. Hunt is the government's media and culture secretary, and was eventually chosen to rule impartially on the BSkyB bid. Murdoch rejected the suggestion that the communications were "covert" or improper, and insisted that Hunt had acted within strict legal parameters every step of the way regarding the bid.
News Corp. withdrew the bid last summer at the height of the phone-hacking scandal, putting on ice Rupert Murdoch's long-held ambition to own the broadcaster.
James Murdoch said his company engaged in aboveboard lobbying of politicians. Though mostly composed throughout his testimony, he grew visibly angry at suggestions that News Corp.'s British newspapers, such as the widely read tabloid the Sun, supported particular British politicians in exchange for their support for the BSkyB takeover bid.
"The question of support of an individual newspaper for politicians one way or another is not something that I would ever link to a commercial transaction like this," Murdoch said. "Nor would I expect ... political support one way or another ever to translate into a minister behaving in an inappropriate way -– ever. I simply wouldn’t do business that way."
-- Henry Chu
Photo: James Murdoch is sworn in to testify at a judge-led hearing on media standards in London on Tuesday. Credit: Agence France-Presse