* Leveson Inquiry starts quizzing media barons, politicians
* James Murdoch held meetings with ministers during BSkyB
* Parliamentary report on phone-hacking expected next week
By Georgina Prodhan and Kate Holton
LONDON, April 24 James Murdoch denied on Tuesday
that he tried to use the political influence wielded by his
father's newspapers to steer through the largest takeover in his
company's history at a time when it was battling a scandal over
Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. was forced to abandon
its cherished $12 billion bid to take full control of pay TV
group BSkyB last year after revelations that his News of
the World tabloid had illegally hacked into phone messages on an
industrial scale to obtain scoops.
At a judicial inquiry into press ethics set up after the
scandal, Rupert's son James was questioned at length on his
handling of the affair and his dealings with the government. He
revealed extremely close ties with the minister responsible for
the final decision on the BSkyB takeover, Jeremy Hunt.
He also acknowledged he had discussed plans for the takeover
with Prime Minister David Cameron at a private dinner, although
he said in general he left politics to his father and their
The high-profile inquiry has captivated Britain with
testimony from movie stars and other celebrities into the
behaviour of its press. It is looking more broadly at ties
between politicians and press barons, especially Rupert Murdoch,
who has wielded enormous influence for four decades.
At the time the scandal broke last year, the younger Murdoch
ran his father's UK newspaper empire and was chairman of BSkyB,
where News Corp, the largest shareholder, was seeking government
permission to take full control.
The affair has been deeply embarrassing for Cameron, who has
faced scrutiny into his close personal friendships with senior
News Corp executives and his judgement in naming a former News
of the World editor as his spokesman.
Tuesday's questioning revealed close contacts between News
Corp and Hunt's media and culture department, with emails sent
between News Corp staff stating that the government minister
accepted the strength of their argument and thought it was 'game
over' for rivals who opposed the deal.
Emails sent by a lobbyist for News Corp stated that Hunt
"shared our objectives" and one email said he had got hold of
some information on what Hunt would say in his statement on the
deal, although he added that this was "absolutely illegal".
The government's willingness last year to approve the
controversial deal prompted critics to argue that Cameron and
Hunt had been too close to the Murdochs. After the hacking
allegations snowballed, Cameron called on News Corp to withdraw
the bid, effectively dooming it.
Investigations into the hacking scandal have hinged on how
much James Murdoch new about illegal practices at the News of
the World, especially when he approved a large payout for a
hacking-related legal claim. He has consistently maintained that
underlings - in particular then-editor Colin Myler who is now at
the New York Daily News and lawyer Tom Crone - failed to alert
him to the extent of the wrongdoing.
"Knowing what we know now about the culture at the News of
the World ... then it must have been cavalier about risk and
that is a matter of huge regret," he told the packed court room.
He said he had not been sufficiently in touch with the
culture at the tabloids to question subordinates.
Asked if he even read the News of the World, he said: "I
couldn't say I read all of it". "I wasn't in the business of
deciding what to put in the newspapers," he said.
Media consultant Steve Hewlett, who has closely followed the
inquiry, said of the testimony: "His lack of engagement with the
nuts and bolts of what the business was actually about - i.e.
journalism and content - is quite remarkable. I'm not saying
it's not genuine but it's quite remarkable."
TOWERED OVER POLITICS
Murdoch at first looked nervous, repeatedly clenching and
flexing his fists and fiddling with his tie as he waited for
Judge Brian Leveson to appear. He appeared to get more confident
as the hearing went on however and at times looked impatient
with the line of questioning, even rolling his eyes on occasion.
The inquiry, led by senior judge Brian Leveson, was ordered
by Cameron last July and has begun questioning media barons and
politicians to examine whether cosy links between them were to
blame for a culture of illegality in parts of the press.
Rupert Murdoch has towered over British politics for four
decades, fostering close relationships with prime ministers from
both main parties. He appears before the inquiry on Wednesday.
His newspapers have long boasted that their endorsements win
elections, especially the daily Sun and its weekly sister paper
the News of the World, long Britain's two best-selling titles.
The News of the World was shut down over the scandal last year
and replaced with a Sunday edition of the Sun.
James Murdoch, 39, long viewed as his 81-year-old father's
heir apparent, rejected the suggestion that he had used the
tabloids' influence to pull strings for the BSkyB bid.
"That's absolutely not the case," he said, raising his voice
at prosecutor Robert Jay.
"The question of support of individual newspaper for
politicians one way or another is not something that I would
ever link to a commercial transaction like this," he said. "I
simply wouldn't do business that way."
He said his father and former News of the World editor
Rebekah Brooks had managed the relationship with politicians
while he focussed on growing the television business, where his
real interests lay.
"From time to time she (Brooks) would report to me about a
discussion that was relevant but she would also communicate
directly with my father with some frequency," he said.