It's a rare sight: Rupert Murdoch, the indomitable head of the News Corp. empire, called before a judicial inquiry again Thursday to explain how his influence has shaped Britain's media and political landscape.
The British inquiry has shone the spotlight on Murdoch's dealings with a succession of British prime ministers going back decades. It also has raised questions about whether cozy relationships have worked to Murdoch's personal advantage, questions that have been posed elsewhere too.
The inquiry brings into sharp focus the scope of a vast media empire with a presence in Britain, Australia and the United States, where Murdoch's News Corp. controls The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Fox News and Harper Collins publishers, among other interests.
"He has more power than any other private citizen in the United States," said media commentator Michael Wolff, founder of Newser.com and author of "The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch."
For Murdoch, who became a U.S. citizen in 1985, the United States is where the stakes are highest -- because that's where the real money is. His News Corp. faces an FBI inquiry there into alleged phone hacking and is the subject of increased scrutiny in Australia following an inquiry into media standards.
In Britain, Murdoch's appearance at the independent judicial probe known as the Leveson Inquiry is the culmination of months of turmoil that have cost his company dearly in terms of money and reputation. More still is at stake if criminal prosecutions arise from a phone hacking scandal at one of his tabloid newspapers.
The 81-year-old News Corp. chairman admitted Thursday to a cover-up of abuses at the News of the World and apologized for not paying more attention to the scandal.
Murdoch denies political influence
On the stand in London Wednesday, Murdoch's political influence was under the microscope. He insisted that his newspapers did not lobby for his commercial interests and he had "never asked a prime minister for anything."
"You would wish to point out that no express favors were offered to you by Mrs. Thatcher; is that right?" he was asked by Leveson Inquiry lawyer Robert Jay, referring to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
"And none asked," responded Murdoch.
The question of influence is key because of the concerns raised over the impartiality of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt in considering a takeover bid by News Corp. for British satellite broadcaster BSkyB. Hunt's aide resigned Wednesday over communications with News Corp. that suggested the global media giant was getting inside information, although Hunt denied any improper dealings on his own part.
And it's significant in part because of the sheer scale of News Corp.'s operations around the globe.
With some 48,000 employees worldwide, the company "had total assets of approximately U.S. $60 billion, total annual revenues of approximately U.S. $34 billion and in excess of 260,000 shareholders" as of the end of last year, Murdoch said in written testimony.
"This is a man who has held power far greater and far longer than anyone else in our time," said Wolff of the octogenarian.
For 60 years, Murdoch has been both a powerful private citizen in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, and a businessman wielding huge influence, Wolff said. "He is so powerful that he doesn't have to ask for anything ... it just comes to him," he said.
News Corp., through its British arm News International, commands some 37% of national newspaper circulation in Britain. It publishes the Times, Sunday Times, Sun and Sun on Sunday newspapers
Given that about 60% of the UK population reads a national newspaper, Murdoch's influence is hard to overstate, said Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster in London.
His attitudes on issues including the Europe Union, opposition to a single currency, taxation and immigration have percolated down to the UK population through his titles, as they shape the news agenda, Barnett said.
The Sun readership matters more than most in political terms because it has 6 to 7 million readers, Barnett said, and polling shows many of these are floating voters.
Murdoch critic: Publisher's claims are 'pretty ludicrous'
Against this backdrop, Murdoch's claims that he never sought to capitalize on that reach for his own benefit are disingenuous at best, Barnett said.
"Time after time, Murdoch insisted on denying that he ever used his newspapers either for commercial advantage or for political advantage, which is quite extraordinary -- and frankly as a claim is pretty ludicrous," said Barnett, who attended the hearing in London.
"When you look at the history of the way in which he increased his empire and the legislative and regulatory decisions that have been made in his favor, it just doesn't stand up to scrutiny."
In his role as chief executive of a multinational media giant, it would have been remiss of Murdoch not to seek the ear of power if it would benefit his shareholders, Barnett said, and his claim that he never did so is "frankly beyond belief."