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Britain Prime Minister David Cameron testifies in media inquiry

LONDON — He’d already admitted that relations were too tight between politicians and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. But on Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron sat under oath, on the witness stand, answering questions and listening poker-faced as embarrassing evidence of his own coziness was read out loud in court.

The grilling, in which a judge and the investigating lawyer often addressed him as “Mr. Cameron” and not “Prime Minister,” was the latest chapter in a judicial inquiry on media ethics that he himself had initiated in light ofBritain’sshocking phone-hacking scandal.

“This is a … cathartic moment where press, politicians, police, all the relationships that haven’t been right, we have a chance to reset them,” Cameron said, as he urged an overhaul of the ties between various pillars of British society. “That is what we must do.”

Cameron spent more than four hours testifying Thursday, a highlight of a remarkable week in which three current and former prime ministers gave sworn testimony in a London courtroom. In the United States, it would be as if Presidents Obama, George W. Bushand Bill Clinton all submitted to questioning by a judge on live national TV on their dealings with the American press corps.

It wasn’t a flattering experience.

“I am so rooting for you tomorrow,” Rebekah Brooks, head of Murdoch’s British newspapers, gushed in a message to Cameron before he gave a key political address in 2009. “Professionally we’re definitely in this together. Speech of your life? Yes, he Cam!”

Aside from what Obama might’ve thought of this riff on his 2008 campaign slogan, it was a revealing, and slightly cringe-making, look at how close Cameron had become with one of the country’s most influential media executives.

For the most part, Cameron was unruffled and smooth during his court appearance, despite having none of the trappings and ceremony around him that normally accompany the occupant of 10 Downing St.

Media watchers here were particularly eager to hear Cameron describe his relationship with media mogul Murdoch, whose favor politicians have eagerly sought for decades in Britain in hope of earning his newspapers’ backing, or alternately, in fear of being targeted by them in smear or muckraking campaigns.

When he was leader of the opposition, Cameron flew to a Greek island to woo a vacationing Murdoch. But he denied that there was ever an explicit or implicit deal in which his Conservative Party extended favors to Murdoch’s giantNews Corp. in return for its editorial support.

“The idea of overt deals is nonsense,” Cameron testified Thursday. “I also don’t believe in this theory that there was sort of a nod and a wink and some sort of covert agreement.”

More specifically, Cameron insisted that there was no special treatment by his government of Murdoch’s multibillion-dollar bid to take over British broadcaster BSkyB, one of the media titan’s most cherished goals until he abandoned it last year in the aftermath of the hacking scandal. Some of the sharpest questioning in court Thursday centered on the government’s handling of the vetting process to make sure that the bid did not violate anti-monopoly regulations.

Cameron defended his decision to appoint his culture minister, Jeremy Hunt, to oversee official scrutiny of Murdoch’s bid for BSkyB. Hunt has come under heavy fire from the opposition Labor Party for allegedly being biased in favor of News Corp.

Cameron said Hunt handled the process fairly. He also said there was nothing improper in his own relationship with Murdoch or that any quid pro quo was involved.

“Of course all businesses have their interests and the rest of it, but in my dealings with Rupert Murdoch, most of the conversation has been about big international political issues,” Cameron said.

Perhaps more uncomfortable for the prime minister was the peek into his friendship with Brooks, who headed Murdoch’s British newspaper operation, News International, until she resigned in disgrace because of the hacking scandal.

Brooks has been arrested, and is free on bail, on suspicion of obstructing justice in the police investigation of industrial-scale phone hacking at News of the World, the sensation-seeking weekly tabloid she once edited. Murdoch shut down the tabloid in July after revelations that staff members had tapped into the voicemail of a kidnapped teenager who was later found slain.

Brooks has herself testified before the inquiry on media ethics, telling an amused courtroom how she and Cameron were on close enough terms that he sent her text messages signed “LOL,” which he thought meant “lots of love” until she disabused him of that idea.

Cameron acknowledged that the two were friends who saw each other socially. Those contacts increased when she married one of Cameron’s childhood pals and moved into a home near his in a tony part of the Oxfordshire countryside, where they and other members of Britain’s political and media elite hobnobbed as part of what’s been dubbed “the Chipping Norton set.”

“Obviously you have to take care [as a politician] when you have personal friendships, but I think that can be done, and I’d like to think I’ve done that,” declared Cameron.

As for Brooks’ 2009 message telling him she was “rooting for” him, Cameron testified that the Murdoch-owned tabloid The Sun had just decided to throw its support behind Cameron’s Conservatives, which meant that he and Brooks were therefore “going to be pushing the same political agenda.”

The judicial inquiry is expected to last for several months and to come up with recommendations on regulation of the press. Cameron apologized Thursday to the presiding judge, Brian Leveson, for dropping the “hot potato” in his lap.

“I don’t think you sound sorry about doing that at all, actually,” Leveson responded dryly, as some in the courtroom laughed out loud.

henry.chu@latimes.com


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