LONDON -- Media baron Rupert Murdoch on Wednesday scoffed at suggestions that he wields undue political influence in Britain, called critics of tabloids "elitist" and dismissed phone hacking as "a lazy way" for reporters to do their jobs.
In a London courtroom, the 81-year-old tycoon insisted that he tried "very hard to set an example of ethical behavior," despite the fact that dozens of journalists at his British newspapers have been arrested in wide-ranging investigations into illegal news-gathering practices, including bribing police.
Murdoch spoke under oath at a judicial inquiry into media ethics that was set up because of the phone-hacking scandal that has engulfed his giant News Corp. and shaken the British political establishment.
Even as he sat in the witness box, testimony from his son James on Tuesday was causing a political ruckus. A special advisor to the government minister in charge of the arts and media resigned because of revelations that he had passed sensitive information to James Murdoch's lobbyist on News Corp.'s controversial bid to take over British Sky Broadcasting.
The minister, Jeremy Hunt, is under heavy pressure to explain the lapse in his office. He is also under fire for appearing to be secretly working to help News Corp.'s bid, even though he was appointed as the officially impartial judge of whether the takeover bid could proceed under Britain's anti-monopoly rules.
Rupert Murdoch is likely to be questioned later Wednesday about the bid and about the hacking scandal.
During the morning session in court, he said he did not condone phone hacking or the hiring of private investigators to ferret out information, two tactics used on an almost industrial scale at the News of the World, the tabloid at the center of the scandal.
"It's a lazy way of reporters not doing their job properly," said Murdoch, who summarily shut down the weekly paper last July, when the hacking scandal broke wide open.
He also downplayed what critics call the excessive and baleful influence he holds on public life in Britain through his media holdings. British prime ministers have eagerly courted Murdoch over the last 30 years, a situation he said he never used to his direct advantage.
"I've never asked a prime minister for anything," he testified.
He also denied trying to advance his commercial interests through his newspapers, which in Britain include the Times of London and the bestselling Sun tabloid.
Murdoch summed up his journalistic mission this way: "Always to tell the truth, certainly to interest the public, to get their attention, but always to tell the truth ... I have great respect for the British public, and I try to carry that through."
-- Henry Chu
Photo: Media titan Rupert Murdoch testifies Wednesday at a British judicial inquiry into media ethics. Credit: Associated Press