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Murdoch denies influence over UK leaders

Murdoch and his wife head for the Leveson Inquiry at London's Royal Courts of Justice (© 2009 AFP)

Rupert Murdoch denied on Wednesday that he had exerted a decades-long stranglehold over British politics as he finally testified at an inquiry sparked by the misdeeds of his media empire.

His evidence came as an adviser to a government minister was forced to resign over allegations of leaking details to Murdoch’s US-based News Corp. as it tried to take full control of pay-TV giant BSkyB.

But 81-year-old Murdoch turned in a flinty performance at the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, hitting out at “lies” that he used his ties to a succession of British leaders for commercial gain.

“I’ve never asked a prime minister for anything,” he told the inquiry in London, which was set up last year in response to the phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World newspaper.

“It is a complete myth that I used the influence of The Sun (his market-leading British tabloid) or its supposed political power to get favourable treatment.”

The Australian-born tycoon also denied discussing the controversial BSkyB deal with current British prime minister David Cameron, and rejected rumours he was unhappy with Cameron for setting up the judge-led inquiry into the press.

As Murdoch spoke, Adam Smith, a special adviser to , resigned over claims that he leaked details to News Corp. about the government’s view of its bid to take full control of BSkyB.

Texts and emails from him to News Corp. executive Frederic Michel emerged during evidence given during Murdoch’s son James on Tuesday, in which Smith apparently gave confidential details and said that Hunt backed the deal.

Hunt — who had the responsibility for the decision about whether the BSkyB takeover should be allowed to go ahead — rejected calls from the opposition to resign.

“This is not the time to jump on a political bandwagon. I have strictly followed due process throughout,” Hunt said in a statement to lawmakers during a stormy session of parliament.

Cameron told parliament that Hunt, who also has responsibility for the 2012 London Olympics, had his “full support”.

But he added that “hand on heart, we all did too much cosying up to Rupert Murdoch, I’m sure we’ll agree.”

At the inquiry, Murdoch rejected suggestions that he had used his ties to Cameron and previous prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to boost his media empire.

“I think you are making sinister inferences,” he told counsel for the inquiry Robert Jay when asked about his ties to former Labour premier Blair, who is godfather to one of Murdoch’s daughters.

Murdoch said he had met Cameron several times, including once on his daughter’s yacht, and was “impressed” with him initially, but denied they had discussed BSkyB or British regulators.

He boasted of his global reach by saying that he enjoyed meeting world leaders and “some impress me more than others.”

But he rejected claims that he only backed political candidates when he knew they were going to win, saying that the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal both opposed Barack Obama in 2008 even though it was clear he would become US president.

He said News Corp. shareholders wanted him to ditch his titles, which include The Sun, The Times and Sunday Times in Britain and the Wall Street Journal and New York Post in the United States, but he had refused.

When asked about the News of the World scandal, Murdoch was more contrite, saying he believed the use of phone-hacking and private investigators was “a lazy way of reporters not doing their job”.

The 168-year-old Sunday tabloid was forced to shut down after a wave of revelations that its staff illegally accessed the voicemail messages of a murdered teenage girl and crime victims as well as dozens of public figures.

News Corp. has paid out millions of pounds in compensation and more than 40 people have been arrested over hacking and over alleged illegal payments to public officials by staff at the News of the World and The Sun.

Murdoch’s testimony is his highest profile appearance in Britain since he appeared before a parliamentary committee in July last year, when a protester attacked him with a foam pie.

Signature : Danny Kemp LONDON (AFP)

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