LONDON — Rupert Murdoch has been portrayed as a man with Britain's most power-packed Rolodex.
For decades, he has been a man British prime ministers and politicians have assiduously wooed, seeing him as the key to winning and keeping power. Until recently, his titles accounted for 40 percent of Britain's newspaper readers. His pay-for-view TV network, British Sky Broadcasting, or BSkyB, has reached into millions of homes.
But when Murdoch, 81, took center stage Wednesday at Britain's most avidly followed public inquiry in years, he hardly seemed the power-hungry newspaper baron of legend.
"Aura? Charisma? I don't think so," he said after the counsel for the inquiry, Robert Jay, cited characterizations of him as "the Sun king" and "the power behind the throne." The message that Murdoch sought to stamp on the hearing was that his success was built not on power but on integrity.
Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson leads the panel, five months into what is expected to be $300 million multiyear inquiry, appointed to take a wide-ranging look at British newspapers. The inquiry was ordered in the wake of what some have described as a Mafia-like conspiracy of wrongdoing in the newsrooms of two mass-circulation, Murdoch-owned newspapers in London, the daily Sun and News of the World, which Murdoch abruptly closed last summer.
For a year, there have been allegations about phone hacking, surreptitious payoffs to police officers, attempts to obstruct justice and other forms of potentially criminal mischief. Nearly 50 editors, reporters and investigators have been arrested by Scotland Yard, and 11 learned last week that criminal charges may be imminent.
"I do try very hard to set an example of ethical behavior and make it quite clear that I expect it," Murdoch told the inquiry.
Jay, the counsel, shot back tartly: "Wasn't it your main objective, Murdoch, to improve the commercial appeal of these papers, and you weren't really concerned with the ethical side? Wouldn't that be a fair observation?"
Murdoch said his objective "was always to tell the truth, certainly to interest the public, to get their attention, but always to tell the truth."
Murdoch also sought, as he put it, to "put to bed once and for all the myth" that he "used the influence of the Sun, or the supposed political power, to get favorable treatment." Rather, he said, politicians had sought his favor in the hope that he would use his papers to boost their electoral chances. He implied that it was often a take-it-or-leave it proposition.
Meanwhile, Adam Smith, aide to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, became the latest in a line of public officials damaged by links to News Corp.
Smith resigned early Wednesday, saying in a statement that his contacts with Frédéric Michel, a lobbyist for the company's bid for BSkyB, went too far. Hunt released a statement expressing confidence that his own appearance at the inquiry would prove his innocence.