MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Rupert Murdoch's son James testified today before a public inquiry in Britain. There, he faced a fundamental question: Did his family use its media influence to bully British politicians into making decisions that advanced the Murdoch's corporate interests? NPR's Philip Reeves followed the hearing in London.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Once again, James Murdoch stepped into the spotlight to defend the media empire his father created. The scandal shaking the Murdochs' News Corp started with illegal phone hacking at one of its British tabloids, the News of the World. Now, it's about much more than that. Until recently, James Murdoch was in charge of his father's U.K. titles.
JAMES MURDOCH: I swear by the mighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
REEVES: As he took the oath, Murdoch, Jr. knew he'd face tricky questions at today's packed session of Britain's media ethics inquiry. The trickiest of all concerned his relationship with Britain's Conservative-led government and especially his dealings with Jeremy Hunt, its secretary of state for culture. In 2010, Hunt was tasked with deciding whether to allow News Corp to acquire total control of the highly lucrative British satellite broadcaster BSkyB. Much of today's hearing focused on a stack of confidential emails that started flying around even before Hunt got the brief and continued as he was making up his mind.
Counsel to the inquiry, Robert Jay, said these were sent to James Murdoch's chief lobbyist - a man called Frederick Michel - from Hunt's special adviser. Jay had a question for James Murdoch.
ROBERT JAY: Do you think it's appropriate, Mr. Murdoch, that here you are getting confidential information as to what's going on at a high level in government?
MURDOCH: I think - I think the...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MURDOCH: ...what I was concerned with here was the substance of what was being communicated, not necessarily the channel by which it was being communicated.
REEVES: There were gasps of astonishment when Jay read out some of the emails, which apparently referred to Hunt as J.H.
JAY: Look at the email at page 54, 01695, in the middle of the page, 24 January. Mr. Michel to you: Confidential: J.H. Statement. Managed to get some info on the plans for tomorrow (although absolutely illegal). What do you make of that?
MURDOCH: I thought it was a joke. I mean, I think the little - the greater than and the exclamation point there are a wink. It's a joke.
JAY: Is it?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JAY: It was absolutely illegal in one sense. It's completely unethical, wasn't it?
MURDOCH: I'm not so sure. I mean, look, Mr. Jay, you know, I'm really not - I have to say I'm not familiar with the sort of ins and outs of Westminster protocol.
REEVES: Murdoch insisted this was all just normal business advocacy. He also admitted having what he called a tiny conversation about the BSkyB bid at a private dinner with Prime Minister David Cameron and to discussing it during a visit to the home of his friend, the finance minister, George Osborne. But those emails are proving particularly controversial. Ed Miliband, leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, is calling for Jeremy Hunt's head.
ED MILIBAND: He should resign. He himself said that his duty was to be transparent, impartial and fair. But now, we know he was providing advice, guidance and privileged access to News Corporation.
REEVES: Hunt responded by saying some of the reported meetings and conversations in those emails simply didn't happen. The British don't often get such a revealing insight into the murky power relationships that shape their society. Tomorrow, there may be more. Attention's shifting from son to father, as 81-year-old Rupert Murdoch takes the stand. Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.