LONDON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch makes a keenly anticipated appearance before a high-profile media inquiry on Wednesday to confront charges that he used his powerful stable of British newspapers to influence politicians for the benefit of his business interests.
The 81-year-old mogul - his media empire already under fire from many sides in Britain - will testify before the Leveson inquiry a day after his son James appeared in a highly charged session that revealed how a government minister had advised Murdoch’s News Corp in its bid to buy the successful pay-TV group BSkyB last year.
The minister, media secretary Jeremy Hunt, briefed News Corp on the thinking of regulators and leaked confidential information, while at the same time acting for the government in deciding whether to approve the controversial $12 billion Sky deal.
Allegations that the government had sought to help Murdoch in his business dealings go to the heart of the issue in Britain, that Murdoch wields too much influence and that this resulted in a company culture which rode roughshod over rules and regulations.
Prime Minister David Cameron appointed judge Brian Leveson to examine Britain’s press standards after journalists at Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid admitted hacking into phones on a massive scale to generate exclusives.
The revelations last July convulsed Murdoch’s media empire, exposed the close ties between the upper echelons of Britain’s establishment and provoked a wave of public anger.
U.S.-based News Corp, owner of Fox Television and the Wall Street Journal, eventually pulled its bid to buy the 61 percent of satellite broadcaster BSkyB that it did not already own amid the intense political and public pressure.
Murdoch is likely to face questions over how the phone hacking came about but he will also face detailed questioning about his relationship with politicians.
Murdoch was the first newspaper boss to visit Cameron after he took office in 2010 - entering via the back door - and politicians from all parties have lived in fear for decades of his press and what they might reveal about their personal lives.
Labor politician Chris Bryant, who accepted damages from Murdoch’s British newspaper group after the paper admitted hacking his phone, said the media mogul had dominated the political landscape for decades.
“You have only got to watch Rupert Murdoch’s staff with him to see how his air of casual violence intimidates people,” he told Reuters. “His presence in the British political scene has similarly intimidated people by offering favor to some and fear to all.”
Murdoch’s influence over prime ministers goes back decades: papers released this year showed that he held a secret meeting with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1981 to secure his acquisition of the Times of London.
Tony Blair was godfather to one of Murdoch’s daughters, Gordon Brown was a personal friend of the Australian-born businessman and Cameron employed as his personal spokesman a former Murdoch editor who was himself implicated in the hacking scandal.
“Ever since the Sun claimed they won it in 1992 there’s been an almost pathological fear of Murdoch’s ability to influence an electorate,” Liverpool University’s political professor Jonathan Tonge told Reuters, in reference to the 1992 election.
“It’s hugely unhealthy.”
Staff who have worked alongside Murdoch say he is hard to brief for such occasions and Murdoch watchers have been hugely anticipating the hearing at the Victorian gothic courtroom.
During a parliamentary hearing last year, memorable for the actions of a protester who hit Murdoch in the face with a foam pie, he sat alongside James and spoke often in monosyllables but on occasion hit the table with his fist in frustration at the line of questioning.
He will have to face potentially another day and a half of questioning starting on Wednesday from prosecutor Robert Jay, who in the five months of the inquiry so far has shown little deference for the status of those he interrogates.
Editing by Giles Elgood