LONDON -- British Prime Minister David Cameron, under fire for courting an exclusive media clique led by Rupert Murdoch, appeared before a judicial inquiry on Thursday to try to neuter claims his ministers tailored policy to further Murdoch's interests.
Cameron's once-cozy ties with Murdoch's inner circle mean he is under pressure to pull off a virtuoso performance at the inquiry, which has sharpened the perception that Britain has been run for years by an elite that fawned on the News Corp chairman.
The coalition government has divided along party lines over Cameron's backing for a minister accused of doing Murdoch's bidding when responsible for impartial oversight, as he struggles with an economy in recession and growing unease about his leadership within his own party.
Cameron, 45, who set up the Leveson inquiry into media ethics himself last year after a newspaper phone-hacking scandal erupted, is due to be questioned for at least five hours, streamed live on television.
Early in the session, Cameron characterized the relationship between Britain's media and politicians as "bad."
"I think a lot of politicians think the press always get it wrong... a lot of the press think politicians are in it for themselves," ITV News quoted Cameron as saying.
Cameron used to sign his frequent text messages to News Corp executive Rebekah Brooks with an affectionate "LOL" -- which he admitted he thought meant "lots of love" -- and employed another Murdoch editor, Andy Coulson, as his trusted spokesman.
Cameron ordered the inquiry after the News of the World, the Sunday tabloid newspaper both Brooks and Coulson had once edited, was found to have hacked into the voicemail of, among others, a murdered schoolgirl to get stories.
'Lapses of judgment'
The Conservative prime minister has said politicians from both his party and the opposition Labour Party were too close to the Murdoch media empire and has vowed to resolve the problem, no matter how messy the process.
But if Cameron had hoped the inquiry might take some heat out of the phone-hacking scandal, it has done the opposite; week after week of revelations have been served up casting British politicians as courtiers to king Murdoch.
"He did not foresee that it would morph into a form of war crimes tribunal," Max Hastings, one of Britain's most influential journalists, wrote in the Financial Times. "Revelations about his lapses of judgment weaken his authority to lead Britain."
The prime minister has been embarrassed by his association with the so-called "Chipping Norton" set, a high-powered social scene centered around the picturesque market town in Oxfordshire. Cameron, Brooks and Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth were among the high-flying friends with luxurious country homes in the area.
Brooks and her husband Charlie, an erstwhile horse-riding partner of Cameron, are now charged with perverting the course of justice by allegedly hiding evidence from police investigating phone-hacking.
The spectacle of a prime minister questioned under oath by one of London's top barristers on live television is a daunting prospect for Cameron's supporters, who are already reeling from criticism that he is a lightweight politician out of touch with the voters.
The prime minister's aides said he was doing "a lot of preparation" and is being briefed by lawyers ahead of his appearance at the inquiry, where he can afford few mistakes, given his party's slump in the polls in recent months.
Cameron is under fire for shielding Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, a Conservative minister, who is accused by Labour of being far too helpful to News Corp while in charge of ruling on the company's bid for full ownership of BSkyB.
Hunt was meant to be an impartial overseer of the $12.5 billion bid for the pay-TV operator, but testimony by Murdoch's executive son James at the Leveson inquiry appeared to show that Hunt's office was in regular contact with News Corp and may have given it confidential information.
Cameron's Liberal Democrat coalition partners abstained on Wednesday from a parliamentary vote on a motion calling for the prime minister to order an inquiry into Hunt's actions, underscoring the divide in the coalition.
Hunt's special adviser resigned over the affair.
In a sign of the concern inside Number 10 Downing Street, aides circulated a letter from the prime minister saying that he would outline measures to increase transparency on special advisers' work and shed more light on decisions such as the one entrusted to Hunt over BSkyB.
The prime minister is also likely to be questioned about Cameron's decision to appoint Coulson as his communications adviser, even though he had resigned as editor of the News of the World after a reporter there was jailed for phone-hacking.
Coulson was charged with perjury last month for remarks he made in court over the hacking scandal.
Reuters and ITV News contributed to this report. ITV News is NBC's British partner.
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